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Darwin the Buddhist? Empathy Writings Reveal Parallels

February 17, 2009

Christine Dell'Amore in Chicago
National Geographic News
February 16, 2009

Charles Darwin probably didn't know it, but he held views on human
empathy that mirror Buddhist beliefs, says a pioneer in decoding facial
expressions.

Based on his interactions with foreign cultures, Darwin came to define
empathy as a desire to end someone's suffering to assuage one's own
discomfort.

Buddhist teachings also see empathy as a somewhat selfish motivation,
but one that the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, calls the
"seed of compassion."

"It's an amazing coincidence that [Darwin's] views on compassion and
morality are identical to the Tibetan Buddhist view," said Paul Ekman, a
psychologist whose work decoding so-called micro-expressions is the
basis for the new Fox television show Lie to Me.

Indeed, after reading Darwin's work on emotions, the Dalai Lama told
Ekman he "would consider himself a Darwinian."

The parallel inspired Ekman to study the little-understood trait of
compassion, which he discussed this weekend in Chicago at the annual
meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Though everyone is capable of compassion, Ekman said, some people seem
to manifest it without effort.

(A related study revealed how bullies seem to experience pleasure when
they see others suffer.)

Until psychologists figure out why the disparity exists, he said, "the
survival of our planet" depends on cultivating compassion.

Universal Trait

Darwin became fascinated with the expression of emotions during his
five-year voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle in the 1830s.

The British naturalist couldn't understand the words or gestures of the
people he met, but he had no trouble interpreting their facial expressions.

In his lesser-known 1872 book The Expression of Emotions in Man and
Animals, Darwin proposed that empathy is a universal trait.

"He saw this book as an important contribution showing the commonality
of all people," Ekman said. (Read more about Darwin's scientific legacy.)

It's also possible that Darwin encountered Buddhist teachings through
letters from other scholars of the time, he added.

Over the past few years, Ekman examined Darwin's book along with
Buddhist teachings and divided compassion into three types: simple,
global, and heroic.

Simple compassion is the almost instinctual form that exists mostly
between a mother and an infant.

Global compassion appears when people help distant strangers, such as
the outpouring of international aid after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

And heroic compassion occurs when a person is motivated into epic acts
of bravery, for instance, jumping into an icy pond to save someone
else's life.

In a recent book co-authored with the Dalai Lama, Ekman suggests
creating "compassion gyms" that could test a person's level of
compassion and even offer exercises to prompt deeper caring for others.

The Dalai Lama, meanwhile, believes that just the sight of unbearable
suffering is enough to inspire compassion.

Animal Emotions

Darwin also argued fervently in his 1872 book that animals and humans
share the capacity for emotion, an idea that has been borne out by later
research, Ekman noted.

(See photos showing how a dying elephant seems to elicit compassion from
its herd.)

Many great ape studies, for example, show that the animals can place
themselves into another's shoes, so to speak. This sensitivity comes
from being self-aware, said Barbara King, an anthropologist at the
College of William and Mary in Virginia.

"We wouldn't be human in the ways we are human today if apes were not
deeply emotional creatures and deeply social ones," King said. "We are …
products of our past."
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