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The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisisby Jeremy Rifkin
Never has the world seemed so completely united-in the form of communication, commerce, and culture-and so savagely torn apart-in the form of war, financial meltdown, global warming, and even the/b>/i>
"One of the leading big-picture thinkers of our day" (Utne Reader) delivers his boldest work in this erudite, tough-minded, and far-reaching manifesto.
Never has the world seemed so completely united-in the form of communication, commerce, and culture-and so savagely torn apart-in the form of war, financial meltdown, global warming, and even the migration of diseases.
No matter how much we put our minds to the task of meeting the challenges of a rapidly globalizing world, the human race seems to continually come up short, unable to muster the collective mental resources to truly "think globally and act locally." In his most ambitious book to date, bestselling social critic Jeremy Rifkin shows that this disconnect between our vision for the world and our ability to realize that vision lies in the current state of human consciousness. The very way our brains are structured disposes us to a way of feeling, thinking, and acting in the world that is no longer entirely relevant to the new environments we have created for ourselves.
The human-made environment is rapidly morphing into a global space, yet our existing modes of consciousness are structured for earlier eras of history, which are just as quickly fading away. Humanity, Rifkin argues, finds itself on the cusp of its greatest experiment to date: refashioning human consciousness so that human beings can mutually live and flourish in the new globalizing society.
In essence, this shift in consciousness is based upon reaching out to others. But to resist this change in human relations and modes of thinking, Rifkin contends, would spell ineptness and disaster in facing the new challenges around us. As the forces of globalization accelerate, deepen, and become ever more complex, the older faith-based and rational forms of consciousness are likely to become stressed, and even dangerous, as they attempt to navigate a world increasingly beyond their reach and control. Indeed, the emergence of this empathetic consciousness has implications for the future that will likely be as profound and far-reaching as when Enlightenment philosophers upended faith-based consciousness with the canon of reason.
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This book presents a new interpretation of the history of civilization by looking at the empathic evolution of the human race and the profound ways it has shaped our development and will likely decide our fate as a species.
A radical new view of human nature is emerging in the biological and cognitive sciences and creating controversy in intellectual circles, the business community, and government. Recent discoveries in brain science and child development are forcing us to rethink the long-held belief that human beings are, by nature, aggressive, materialistic, utilitarian, and self-interested. The dawning realization that we are a fundamentally empathic species has profound and far-reaching consequences for society.
These new understandings of human nature open the door to a never-before-told journey. The pages that follow reveal the dramatic story of the development of human empathy from the rise of the great theological civilizations, to the ideological age that dominated the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the psychological era that characterized much of the twentieth century, and the emerging dramaturgical period of the twenty-first century.
Viewing economic history from an empathic lens allows us to uncover rich new strands of the human narrative that lay previously hidden. The result is a new social tapestry—The Empathic Civilization—woven from a wide range of fields, including literature and the arts, theology, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, political science, psychology, and communications theory.
At the very core of the human story is the paradoxical relationship between empathy and entropy. Throughout history new energy regimes have converged with new communication revolutions, creating ever more complex societies. More technologically advanced civilizations, in turn, have brought diverse people together, heightened empathic sensitivity, and expanded human consciousness. But these increasingly more complicated milieus require more extensive energy use and speed us toward resource depletion.
The irony is that our growing empathic awareness has been made possible by an ever-greater consumption of the Earth's energy and other resources, resulting in a dramatic deterioration of the health of the planet.
We now face the haunting prospect of approaching global empathy in a highly energy-intensive, interconnected world, riding on the back of an escalating entropy bill that now threatens catastrophic climate change and our very existence. Resolving the empathy/entropy paradox will likely be the critical test of our species' ability to survive and flourish on Earth in the future. This will necessitate a fundamental rethinking of our philosophical, economic, and social models.
Toward this end, the book begins with an analysis of the empathy/entropy conundrum and the central role this unlikely dynamic has played in determining the direction of human history. Part I is given over to an examination of the new view of human nature that is emerging in the natural and social sciences and in the humanities, with the discovery of Homoempathicus. Part II is devoted to exploring the empathic surges and the great transformations in consciousness that have accompanied each more complex energy-consuming civilization, with the aim of providing a new rendering of human history and the meaning of human existence. Part III reports on the current race to global peak empathy against the backdrop of an ever-quickening entropic destruction of the Earth's biosphere. Finally, we turn our attention to the fledgling Third Industrial Revolution that is ushering in a new era of "distributed capitalism" and the beginning of biosphere consciousness. We are on the cusp, I believe, of an epic shift into a "climax" global economy and a fundamental repositioning of human life on the planet. The Age of Reason is being eclipsed by the Age of Empathy.
The most important question facing humanity is this: Can we reach global empathy in time to avoid the collapse of civilization and save the Earth?
The Hidden Paradox of Human History
The evening of December 24, 1914, Flanders. The first world war in history was entering into its fifth month. Millions of soldiers were bedded down in makeshift trenches latticed across the European countryside. In many places the opposing armies were dug in within thirty to fifty yards of each other and within shouting distance. The conditions were hellish. The bitter-cold winter air chilled to the bone. The trenches were waterlogged. Soldiers shared their quarters with rats and vermin. Lacking adequate latrines, the stench of human excrement was everywhere. The men slept upright to avoid the muck and sludge of their makeshift arrangements. Dead soldiers littered the no-man's-land between opposing forces, the bodies left to rot and decompose within yards of their still-living comrades who were unable to collect them for burial.
As dusk fell over the battlefields, something extraordinary happened. The Germans began lighting candles on the thousands of small Christmas trees that had been sent to the front to lend some comfort to the men. The German soldiers then began to sing Christmas carols— first "Silent Night," then a stream of other songs followed. The English soldiers were stunned. One soldier, gazing in disbelief at the enemy lines, said the blazed trenches looked "like the footlights of a theater." The English soldiers responded with applause, at first tentatively, then with exuberance. They began to sing Christmas carols back to their German foes to equally robust applause.
A few men from both sides crawled out of their trenches and began to walk across the no-man's-land toward each other. Soon hundreds followed. As word spread across the front, thousands of men poured out of their trenches. They shook hands, exchanged cigarettes and cakes and showed photos of their families. They talked about where they hailed from, reminisced about Christmases past, and joked about the absurdity of war.
The next morning, as the Christmas sun rose over the battlefield of Europe, tens of thousands of men—some estimates put the number as high as 100,000 soldiers—talked quietly with one another. Enemies just twenty-four hours earlier, they found themselves helping each other bury their dead comrades. More than a few pickup soccer matches were reported. Even officers at the front participated, although when the news filtered back to the high command in the rear, the generals took a less enthusiastic view of the affair. Worried that the truce might undermine military morale, the generals quickly took measures to rein in their troops.
The surreal "Christmas truce" ended as abruptly as it began—all in all, a small blip in a war that would end in November 1918 with 8.5 million military deaths in the greatest episode of human carnage in the annals of history until that time. For a few short hours, no more than a day, tens of thousands of human beings broke ranks, not only from their commands but from their allegiances to country, to show their common humanity. Thrown together to maim and kill, they courageously stepped outside of their institutional duties to commiserate with one another and to celebrate each other's lives.
While the battlefield is supposed to be a place where heroism is measured in one's willingness to kill and die for a noble cause that transcends one's everyday life, these men chose a different type of courage. They reached out to each other's very private suffering and sought solace in each other's plight. Walking across no-man's-land, they found themselves in one another. The strength to comfort each other flowed from a deep unspoken sense of their individual vulnerability and their unrequited desire for the companionship of their fellows.
It was, without reserve, a very human moment. Still, it was reported as a strange lapse at the time. A century later, we commemorate the episode as a nostalgic interlude in a world we have come to define in very different terms.
For nearly seventeen hundred years in the West, we were led to believe that human beings are sinners in a fallen world. If we were to hope for a respite, we would have to settle for salvation in the next world. At the cusp of the modern era, the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes quipped that "the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." His only answer to the nightmare of human existence was to call for the tight hand of government authority to keep people from killing each other in a war of "each against all."
Enlightenment philosophers tempered Hobbes's less-than-kind view of the human condition with a number of new narratives to explain human nature. John Locke, the English philosopher, argued that human beings are born tabula rasa—our minds are a blank slate—and then molded by society. But to what end? Here Locke compromised his blank slate theory just enough to suggest that we come into life with a predisposition. We are, he proclaimed, an acquisitive animal by nature. We use our hands and tools to expropriate nature's resources, transforming the Earth's vast wasteland into productive property. To be productive, declared Locke, is man's ultimate mission, the reason for his very existence on Earth. He wrote,
Land that is left wholly to nature, that hath no improvement of pasturage, tillage, or planting, is called, as indeed it is, waste. . . .Let any one consider what the difference is between an acre of land planted with tobacco or sugar, sown with wheat or barley, and an acre of the same land lying in common, without any husbandry upon it, and he will find, that the improvement of labour makes the far greater part of the value.
Locke believed that "[t]he negation of nature is the way toward happiness."
A century later, the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham qualified the idea of happiness by suggesting that the universal human condition boiled down to the avoidance of pain and the optimizing of pleasure. His utilitarian spin was later sexualized by Sigmund Freud at the turn of the twentieth century in the form of the pleasure principle. Each newborn, Freud reasoned, is predisposed to seek pleasure, and by this he meant eroticized pleasure. The mother's breast is more than a mere source of nourishment—it is also a source of sexual gratification that serves the infant's insatiable libido.
Yet what transpired in the battlefields of Flanders on Christmas Eve 1914 between tens of thousands of young men had nothing to do with original sin or productive labor. And the pleasure those men sought in each other's company bore little resemblance to the superficial rendering of pleasure offered up by nineteenth-century utilitarians and even less to Freud's rather pathological account of a human race preoccupied by the erotic impulse.
The men at Flanders expressed a far deeper human sensibility—one that emanates from the very marrow of human existence and that transcends the portals of time and the exigencies of whatever contemporary orthodoxy happens to rule. We need only ask ourselves why we feel so heartened at what these men did. They chose to be human. And the central human quality they expressed was empathy for one another.
Empathic distress is as old as our species and is traceable far back into our ancestral past, to our link with our primate relatives and, before them, our mammalian ancestors. It is only very recently, however, that biologists and cognitive scientists have begun to discover primitive behavioral manifestations of empathy throughout the mammalian kingdom, among animals that nurture their young. They report that primates, and especially humans, with our more developed neocortex, are particularly wired for empathy.
Without a well-developed concept of selfhood, however, mature empathic expression would be impossible. Child development researchers have long noted that infants as young as one or two days old are able to identify the cries of other newborns and will cry in return, in what is called rudimentary empathetic distress. That's because the empathic predisposition is embedded into our biology. But the real sense of empathic extension doesn't begin to appear until the age of eighteen months to two and a half years, when the infant begins to develop a sense of self and other. In other words, it is only when the infant is able to understand that someone else exists as a separate being from himself that he is able to experience the others' condition as if it were his own and respond with the appropriate comfort.
In studies, two-year-old children will often wince in discomfort at the sight of another child's suffering and come over to him to share a toy, or cuddle, or bring him over to their own mother for assistance. The extent to which empathetic consciousness develops, broadens, and deepens during childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, depends on early parenting behavior—which psychologists call attachment—as well as the values and worldview of the culture one is embedded in and the potential exposure to others.
The Human Story That's Never Been Told
It has become fashionable in recent times to question the notion that there may be an underlying meaning to the human saga that permeates and transcends all of the various cultural narratives that make up the diverse history of our species and that provides the social glue for each of our odysseys. Such thoughts would most likely elicit a collective grimace from many postmodern scholars. The evidence suggests, however, that there may be an overarching theme to the human journey.
Our official chroniclers— the historians—have given short shrift to empathy as a driving force in the unfolding of human history. Historians, by and large, write about social conflict and wars, great heroes and evil wrongdoers, technological progress and the exercise of power, economic injustices and the redress of social grievances. When historians touch on philosophy, it is usually in relationship to the disposition of power. Rarely do we hear of the other side of the human experience that speaks to our deeply social nature and the evolution and extension of human affection and its impact on culture and society.
The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Fredrich Hegel once remarked that happiness is "the blank pages of history" because they are "periods of harmony." Happy people generally live out their existence in the "microworld" of close familial relations and extended social affiliations.
History, on the other hand, is more often than not made by the disgruntled and discontented, the angry and rebellious—those interested in exercising authority and exploiting others and their victims, interested in righting wrongs and restoring justice. By this reckoning, much of the history that is written is about the pathology of power.
Perhaps that is why, when we come to think about human nature, we have such a bleak analysis. Our collective memory is measured in terms of crises and calamities, harrowing injustices, and terrifying episodes of brutality inflicted on each other and our fellow creatures. But if these were the defining elements of human experience, we would have perished as a species long ago.
All of which raises the question "Why have we come to think of life in such dire terms?" The answer is that tales of misdeeds and woe surprise us. They are unexpected and, therefore, trigger alarm and heighten our interest. That is because such events are novel and not the norm, but they are newsworthy and for that reason they are the stuff of history.
The everyday world is quite different. Although life as it's lived on the ground, close to home, is peppered with suffering, stresses, injustices, and foul play, it is, for the most part, lived out in hundreds of small acts of kindness and generosity. Comfort and compassion between people creates goodwill, establishes the bonds of sociality, and gives joy to people's lives. Much of our daily interaction with our fellow human beings is empathic because that is our core nature. Empathy is the very means by which we create social life and advance civilization. In short, it is the extraordinary evolution of empathic consciousness that is the quintessential underlying story of human history, even if it has not been given the serious attention it deserves by our historians.
There is still another reason why empathy has yet to be seriously examined in all of its anthropological and historical detail. The difficulty lies in the evolutionary process itself. Empathic consciousness has grown slowly over the 175,000 years of human history. It has sometimes flourished, only to recede for long periods of time. Its progress has been irregular, but its trajectory is clear. Empathic development and the development of selfhood go hand in hand and accompany the increasingly complex energy-consuming social structures that make up the human journey. (We will examine this relationship throughout the book.)
Because the development of selfhood is so completely intertwined with the development of empathic consciousness, the very term "empathy" didn't become part of the human vocabulary until 1909— about the same time that modern psychology began to explore the internal dynamics of the unconscious and consciousness itself. In other words, it wasn't until human beings were developed enough in human selfhood that they could begin thinking about the nature of their innermost feelings and thoughts in relation to other people's innermost feelings and thoughts that they were able to recognize the existence of empathy, find the appropriate metaphors to discuss it, and probe the deep recesses of its multiple meanings.
We have to remember that as recently as six generations ago, our great-great-grandparents—living circa mid-to-late 1880s—were not encultured to think therapeutically. My own grandparents were unable to probe their feelings and thinking in order to analyze how their past emotional experiences and relationships affected their behavior toward others and their sense of self. They were untutored in the notion of unconscious drives and terms like transference and projection. Today, a hundred years after the coming of the age of psychology, young people are thoroughly immersed in therapeutic consciousness and comfortable with thinking about, getting in touch with and analyzing their own innermost feelings, emotions, and thoughts—as well as those of their fellows.
The precursor to empathy was the word "sympathy"—a term that came into vogue during the European Enlightenment. The Scottish economist Adam Smith wrote a book on moral sentiments in 1759. Although far better known for his theory of the marketplace, Smith devoted considerable attention to the question of human emotions. Sympathy, for Smith, Hume, other philosophers, and literary figures of the time, meant feeling sorry for another's plight. Empathy shares emotional territory with sympathy but is markedly different.
The term "empathy" is derived from the German word Einfühlung, coined by Robert Vischer in 1872 and used in German aesthetics. Einfühlung relates to how observers project their own sensibilities onto an object of adoration or contemplation and is a way of explaining how one comes to appreciate and enjoy the beauty of, for example, a work of art. The German philosopher and historian Wilhelm Dilthey borrowed the term from aesthetics and began to use it to describe the mental process by which one person enters into another's being and comes to know how they feel and think.
In 1909, the American psychologist E. B. Titchener translated Einfühlung into a new word, "empathy." Titchener had studied with Wilhelm Wundt, the father of modern psychology, while in Europe. Like many young psychologists in the field, Titchener was primarily interested in the key concept of introspection, the process by which a person examines his or her own inner feelings and drives, emotions, and thoughts to gain a sense of personal understanding about the formation of his or her identity and selfhood. The "pathy" in empathy suggests that we enter into the emotional state of another's suffering and feel his or her pain as if it were our own.
Variations of empathy soon emerged, including "empathic" and "to empathize," as the term became part of the popular psychological culture emerging in cosmopolitan centers in Vienna, London, New York, and elsewhere. Unlike sympathy, which is more passive, empathy conjures up active engagement—the willingness of an observer to become part of another's experience, to share the feeling of that experience.
Empathy was a powerful new conceptual term and quickly became the subject of controversy among scholars. Those wedded to a more rational Enlightenment approach quickly attempted to strip the term of its affective content, suggesting that empathy is a cognitive function wired into the brain but requires cultural attunement. American philosopher and psychologist George Herbert Mead argued that every human being takes on the role of another in order to assess that person's thoughts, behavior, and intentions, and thus create an appropriate response. Jean Piaget, the child development psychologist, concurred. In the child developmental process, according to Piaget, the youngster becomes increasingly adept at "reading" others in order to establish social relations. The cognitive proponents, in their theories, came close to suggesting—although not overtly—that empathy is an instrumental value, a taking of measure of the other to advance one's own social interest and maintain appropriate social relations.
Others in the field of psychology more inclined to the Romantic bent viewed empathy as essentially an affective or emotional state with a cognitive component. The empathic observer doesn't lose his sense of self and fuse into the other's experience, nor does he coolly and objectively read the experience of the other as a way of gathering information that could be used to foster his own self interest. Rather, as psychology professor Martin L. Hoffman suggests, empathy runs deeper. He defines empathy as "the involvement of psychological processes that make a person have feelings that are more congruent with another's situation than with his own situation." Hoffman and others don't discount the role cognition plays—what psychologists call "empathic accuracy." But they are more likely to perceive empathy as a total response to the plight of another person, sparked by a deep emotional sharing of that other person's state, accompanied by a cognitive assessment of the others' present condition and followed by an affective and engaged response to attend to their needs and help ameliorate their suffering.
Although most people probably would view empathy as both an emotional and cognitive response to another's plight, empathy is not just reserved for the notion that "I feel your pain," a phrase popularized by former president Bill Clinton and later caricatured in pop culture. One can also empathize with another's joy.
Ofttimes empathizing with another person's joy comes from a deep personal knowledge of their past struggles, making their joy all the more valued and vicariously felt. Another person's empathic embrace can even transform one's own suffering to joy. Carl Rogers put it poignantly:
[W]hen a person realizes he has been deeply heard, his eyes moisten. I think in some real sense, he is weeping for joy. It is as though he were saying, "Thank God, somebody heard me. Someone knows what it's like to be me."
There has been a steady rise in interest in the import and impact of empathy on consciousness and social development over the past century. That interest has mushroomed in the past decade as empathy has become a hot-button topic in professional fields ranging from medical care to human resources management.
Biologists talk excitedly about the discovery of mirror neurons, the so-called empathy neurons that establish the genetic predisposition for empathetic response across some of the mammalian kingdom. The existence of mirror neurons has touched off a wide-ranging debate in the academic community over long-held assumptions about the nature of biological evolution and especially the nature of human evolution.
Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard biologist, turned upside down centuries of thinking about the nature of human beings' relationship to other animals with his essay on biophilia. Christian theologians had always taken a utilitarian view of our fellow creatures, arguing that God had given humankind dominion over the other animals to dispose of them as we chose. For the most part, with the exception of Saint Francis of Assisi, the Church's perspective was that animals, like human beings, were fallen creatures, useful but of little intrinsic value. Even the Enlightenment philosophers showed little regard for the other animals that populate the Earth. Most shared René Descartes's view of living creatures as "soulless automatons" whose movements were little different from those of the automated puppetry that danced upon the Strasbourg Clock.
Wilson argues to the contrary, that human beings have a genetic predisposition—an innate hankering— to seek empathic affiliation and companionship with other creatures and the wild, and dared to suggest that increasing isolation from the rest of nature results in psychological and even physical deprivation, with profound consequences for our species.
Educators have picked up the banner of empathic attunement in the burgeoning field of "emotional intelligence," suggesting that empathic extension and engagement is an important marker by which to judge the psychological and social development of children. Some schools in the United States have begun to revolutionize curricula to emphasize empathetic pedagogy alongside the more traditional intellectual and vocational programs.
New teaching models designed to transform education from a competitive contest to a collaborative learning experience are emerging as schools attempt to catch up to a generation that has grown up on the Internet and is used to interacting and learning in open social networks where they share information rather than hoard it. Meanwhile, service learning has revolutionized the school experience. Millions of youngsters are now required to perform public service in neighborhood organizations where they assist others in need and advance the quality of life of the community.
All of those educational innovations are helping to nurture a more mature empathic sensibility. The traditional assumption that "knowledge is power" and is used for personal gain is being subsumed by the notion that knowledge is an expression of the shared responsibilities for the collective well-being of humanity and the planet as a whole.
Early evaluations of student performance in the few places where the new empathic approach to education has been implemented show a marked improvement in mindfulness, communications skills, and critical thinking as youngsters become more introspective, emotionally attuned, and cognitively adept at comprehending and responding intelligently and compassionately to others. Because empathic skills emphasize a non-judgmental orientation and tolerance of other perspectives, they accustom young people to think in terms of layers of complexity and force them to live within the context of ambiguous realities where there are no simple formulas or answers, but only a constant search for shared meanings and common understandings. The new empathic teaching experience, though still nascent, is designed to prepare students to plumb the mysteries of an existential universe where the ultimate questions are not just "how to" but also "why"?
In the law, the traditional concept of meting out justice has been broadened to include the idea of reconciliation—a radically new approach to addressing wrongdoing on the basis of restoring relationships between perpetrators of crimes and their victims, rather than merely imposing punishment on the guilty party.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission instituted in South Africa in the 1990s after the end of apartheid was the first of several such bodies established in the aftermath of mass violence in various countries. Similar commissions have been established in Ireland, Argentina, and East Timor.
Reconciliation commissions bring together those who have committed the crimes and their victims. The victims bear public witness to the atrocities committed and talk openly about the physical and emotional suffering they experienced at the hands of the perpetrators. The perpetrators, in turn, are given the opportunity to make a full and truthful disclosure of their crimes in front of their victims and, if they choose, to ask for forgiveness. The experience is designed to provide a "safe environment" to allow for an empathic catharsis, reconciliation and healing among the parties.
A similar process called restorative justice is being implemented in court jurisdictions in several countries. Imprisoned felons and their victims are encouraged to come together in carefully choreographed therapeutic settings to talk face-to-face and share their feelings about the crime. The hope is that the perpetrator, after hearing the victim recount the experience and the suffering and anguish that resulted, might feel guilt, thereby activating an empathic response, remorse and an effort to seek forgiveness.
The reconciliation commissions and restorative justice programs are a formal recognition that the question of morality extends beyond the issue of fairness to include the equally important issue of caring and that righting a wrong includes emotional reparations as well as criminal convictions. These novel legal entities are a new way of dealing with conflict resolution that puts as much emphasis on empathy as on equity. Such bodies would have been unheard of in previous periods of history. Their success in mitigating future abuses and criminal behavior, while mixed, is nonetheless encouraging and suggests a broadening of the vision of criminal justice and the role of law in addressing wrongdoing in society.
Even economics, the dismal science, has undergone a partial makeover. For two centuries Adam Smith's observation that nature inclines each individual to pursue his or her own individual self-interest in the marketplace seemed the undisputable last word on the nature of human nature. In his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), Smith contended that:
[E]very individual is continually exerting himself to find out the most advantageous employment for whatever capital he can command. It is his own advantage, indeed, and not that of society, which he has in view. But the study of his own advantage naturally, or rather necessarily, leads him to prefer that employment which is most advantageous to the society.
Smith's characterization of human nature, while still gospel, is no longer sacrosanct. The IT (Information Technology) and Internet revolutions have begun to change the nature of the economic game. Network ways of doing business challenge orthodox market assumptions about self-interest. Caveat emptor—let the buyer beware—has been replaced with the belief that all exchanges should be, above all, completely transparent. The conventional notion that views market transactions as adversarial has been undermined by network collaboration based on win-win strategies. In networks, optimizing the interest of others increases one's own assets and value. Cooperation bests competition. Sharing risks and open-source collaboration, rather than Machiavellian-inspired intrigues and manipulations, become the norm. Think Linux—a business model that simply would have been unimaginable twenty years ago.
The idea behind this global software business is to encourage thousands of people to empathize with the plight of others who are experiencing glitches with their software programming and codes and freely give time and expertise to help solve their problems. The notion of economic altruism no longer seems like an oxymoron. Adam Smith would, no doubt, be incredulous. Nonetheless, Linux works and has become a competitor with Microsoft on the world stage.
The new insights into human beings' empathic nature has even caught the attention of human resources management who are beginning to put as much emphasis on social intelligence as professional skills. The ability of employees to empathize across traditional ethnic, racial, cultural, and gender boundaries is increasingly regarded as essential to corporate performance, both within the workplace and in external market relations. Learning how to work together in a thoughtful and compassionate manner is becoming standard operating procedure in a complex, interdependent world. (We will examine the powerful paradigmatic impact the new empathic surge is having across the global society in Part III: The Age of Empathy.)
What does this tell us about human nature? Is it possible that human beings are not inherently evil or intrinsically self-interested and materialistic, but are of a very different nature—an empathic one—and that all of the other drives that we have considered to be primary—aggression, violence, selfish behavior, acquisitiveness—are in fact secondary drives that flow from repression or denial of our most basic instinct?
The first hint that such might be the case—at least in scientific literature— occurred in an obscure laboratory study by psychologist Harry Harlow in 1958 at the University of Wisconsin. Harlow and his team conducted an experiment on infant monkeys to observe their affectional responses. What they found shook the world of biology, with ripple effects that spread into the social sciences and other fields.
Harlow and his team erected two artificial surrogate mothers. The first was a wood block with sponge rubber around it and draped in cotton terry cloth. A lightbulb radiating heat was placed behind the surrogate. The second surrogate mother was far less comfortable. It was made of wire mesh, warmed by radiant heat. Both surrogates lactated milk.
The infants all preferred to nestle up to the cloth surrogate. However, even when the cloth mother stopped lactating, the infants clung, refusing to take the few necessary steps over to the wire-mesh surrogate for nourishment. They persisted, to the point of starvation and death.
Writing in American Psyschologist, Harlow reported that even "[w]ith age and opportunity to learn, subjects with the lactating wire mother showed decreasing responsiveness to her and increasing responsiveness to the nonlactating cloth mother."
Astounded by what they observed, Harlow and his fellow researchers concluded with the suggestion that the primary function of nursing as an affectional variable is that of insuring frequent and intimate body contact of the infant with the mother. Certainly, man cannot live by milk alone.
Researchers need not have torn the infant monkeys from their mothers and subjected them to such a cruel experiment. Evidence was already well in hand by then, showing that human infants exhibited similar behavior in foundling hospitals earlier in the century. These public institutions were built and administered during the great waves of immigration to America—between the 1880s and 1930s— to house and care for orphaned and abandoned infants or infants taken from indigent families that could not take care of them. Influenced by the progressive-era dogma that emphasized a combination of modern hygiene and strict detached care designed to transform a child quickly into an independent and autonomous being— touching was looked on as potentially unhygienic and a way to spread germs and infection— hospital administrators frowned on nurses caressing or stroking infants. It was thought that affection would retard children's moral development, make them more dependent, and impede their speedy maturation into self-possessed little human beings. The infants were, for the most part, well-fed, well-supervised, and kept in germ-free environments.
Although attended to, thousands of these children languished. They exhibited high degrees of depression and stereotypical behavior of the kind that occurs in extreme isolation. Despite ample food, adequate medical attention, and reasonably comfortable surroundings, the mortality rate was far above the norm for children raised with biological parents or even foster or adoptive parents.
It wasn't until the 1930s that psychologists began to urge a change in infant care. Nurses were instructed to pick up and caress the infants, rock them, soothe and comfort them, and develop a sense of intimate contact. Infants responded almost immediately. They came to life and became engaged, affectionate, and vital.
What had been missing in the foundling homes was one of the most important factors in infant development—empathy. We are learning, against all of the prevailing wisdom, that human nature is not to seek autonomy—to become an island to oneself—but, rather, to seek companionship, affection, and intimacy. The conventional belief that equates self-development and self-consciousness with increasing autonomy has begun to lose its intellectual cachet. A growing number of child development psychologists now argue the contrary—that a sense of selfhood and self-awareness depends on and feeds off of deepening relationships to other people. Empathy, in turn, is the means by which companionate bonds are forged.
Were the seeking of companionship not so basic to our nature, we wouldn't so fear isolation or ostracization. To be shunned and exiled is to become a nonperson, to cease to exist as far as others are concerned. Empathy is the psychological means by which we become part of other people's lives and share meaningful experiences. The very notion of transcendence means to reach beyond oneself, to participate with and belong to larger communities, to be embedded in more complex webs of meaning.
William Fairbairn, Heinz Kohut, Ian Suttie, Donald Winnicott, John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, and others—whom we will hear from shortly— were among a growing number of psychiatrists and pediatricians who broke with Freud in the late 1930s and 1940s, taking umbrage with his notion of the reality principle. Recall that Freud believed that every newborn seeks to satisfy his or her libidinal drive—the pleasure principle. It is only later—at around the age of eighteen months to two years—that parents introduce their children to the reality principle. For Freud, reality is imposing restraints and constraints, first in the form of toilet training and scheduled feedings. The baby, says Freud, needs to be taught to delay gratification, to repress his or her instinctual drives in order to conform with the norms that make social life possible. Socialization for Freud meant repression of basic drives, which he viewed as ultimately self-destructive and antisocial.
Many of the renegade psychologists of the 1930s and 1940s thought differently. They argued that children are born with a reality principle, and that principle is to seek affection, companionship, intimacy, and a sense of belonging. The search to belong, they suggested, is the most primary of all drives. Society often tempers or represses the drive for affection and intimacy to serve socially constructive ends, but it remains the essential nature of human beings. (We will turn our attention to the new scientific understandings about human beings' empathic nature in Part I: Homo Empathicus.)
If in fact human beings are, at the get-go, social animals who seek companionship and use empathetic extension to transcend themselves and find meaning in relationship with others, how do we account for the incredible violence our species has inflicted on each other, our fellow creatures, and the Earth we inhabit? No other creature has left such a destructive footprint on the Earth. Cultural historian Elias Canetti once remarked that "[e]ach of us is a king in a field of corpses." Canetti said that if we reflected on the vast number of creatures and Earth's resources each of us has expropriated and consumed in the course of our lifetime to perpetuate our own existence, we would likely be appalled by the carnage. Yet there may be an explanation for this perplexing duality. There is, I believe, a grand paradox to human history. At the heart of the human saga is a catch-22— a contradiction of extraordinary significance—that has accompanied our species, if not from the very beginning, then at least from the time our ancestors began their slow metamorphosis from archaic to civilized beings thousands of years before Christ.
First, we must understand that widespread wanton violence has not been the norm in human history but, rather, the exception, that is, if one considers the entire span that anatomically modern human beings have existed on Earth. Granted, some expropriation of other animals and manipulation of our environment is essential to maintain human sustenance, as is the case with every other mammalian species. For 93 percent of our species' existence we lived as foragers/hunters in small tribal groups of between 30 and 150 people. Archaic men and women were nomadic and communal. While aggression and violence existed among our Paleolithic ancestors, it generally was limited in scale and confined to maintaining territorial migratory grounds against intrusion or conflicts over mate selection. Like our closest chimpanzee relatives, far more time was spent on grooming, play, and other pro-social behavior.
Even in the early European garden/agricultural societies of the Neolithic Age, archeologists find virtually no weapons or remains of military fortifications and little evidence of violent warfare or occupation. Archeologist Marija Gimbutas notes that the early European agriculturalists lived a relatively peaceful existence. Their societies were largely egalitarian and matrilineal. Craft technology was advanced and the archeological findings of the period reveal a highly artistic culture.
Beginning around 4400 BC, however, Europe was rocked by a wave of invasions from the East. Nomadic horsemen of the Eurasian steppes swept into southern and eastern Europe, destroying the tranquil agricultural life that had existed for several thousand years. Known as the Kurgan people, the invaders bred horses that could carry human mounts. The mounted horse gave them a superior military advantage, allowing them to surprise, overrun, and occupy village communities across much of Eurasia in the ensuing centuries.
These ancient cowboys brought with them a new warrior sensibility. Equally important, they learned to domesticate the bovine and herd large numbers of animals. The herds were forms of capital. In fact, the very word "cattle" comes from the same etymological root as the word "capital." Cattle meant property. Cattle were regarded as movable wealth, an asset that could be used as a standard medium of exchange and a tool for exerting power over people and territory.
It wasn't long before the lessons of how to transform animals into capital and a source of health and power were applied to human beings. In the Middle East, around the fourth millennium BC, we see the beginnings of societies based on the herding of thousands of human beings into giant work groups to build canals, erect dikes, and create the first large-scale hydraulic agricultural civilizations.
The creation of what Lewis Mumford called the human "megamachine" ushered in a radical restructuring of human society. Matriarchal forms of familial relations gave way to new patriarchal forms of power. Governance, which traditionally had been structured around cohort groups, marking the passage of life from infancy to old age, made way for abstract rule in the hands of a single ruler who exercised absolute power. That power was administered by centralized bureaucratic authority designed to rein in and regiment the lives of tens of thousands of people to the task of exploiting the Earth's largesse and creating ever-greater surpluses to extend the bounds of human empire. It is at this juncture— the dawn of civilization— that our story begins. It is a hopeful yet discouraging tale built on what is surely the strangest contradiction in history.
The reality is that each new, more complex energy-consuming civilization in history increases the pace, flow, and density of human exchange and creates more connectivity between people. Increased energy flow-through also creates surpluses and allows for growing populations and more expanded commercial relations and trade with near and faraway communities. The very complexity of more advanced civilizations— the hydraulic agricultural societies based on large-scale irrigation systems, and the industrial societies based on fossil fuel utilization—require greater differentiation and individuation in the form of specialized talents, roles, and responsibilities, in ever more interdependent social milieus. The differentiation process pulls individuals away from the collective tribal "we" to an ever more individual "I." Role differentiation, in turn, becomes the path to selfhood.
Small family and extended kinship units of 30 to 150 people, which are so characteristic of forager/hunter–based oral cultures, exhibit only minimal role differentiation and thus little to distinguish the individual as a unique self. Archaic man and woman lived collectively, but not as a collection of self-aware individuals. Their life contrasts sharply with the setting in midtown Manhattan in 2010, where an individual is exposed to potentially 220,000 or more people within a ten-minute radius of their home or office, and each of these thousands of people have their own unique roles, responsibilities, and identities that set them apart from the group. Yet they function together in a highly interdependent and integrated economic and social organism.
The awakening sense of selfhood, brought on by the differentiation process, is crucial to the development and extension of empathy. The more individualized and developed the self is, the greater is our sense of our own unique, mortal existence, as well as our existential aloneness and the many challenges we face in the struggle to be and to flourish. It is these very feelings in ourselves that allow us to empathize with similar existential feelings in others. A heightened empathic sentiment also allows an increasingly individualized population to affiliate with one another in more interdependent, expanded, and integrated social organisms. This is the process that characterizes what we call civilization. Civilization is the detribalization of blood ties and the resocialization of distinct individuals based on associational ties. Empathic extension is the psychological mechanism that makes the conversion and the transition possible. When we say to civilize, we mean to empathize.
Today, in what is fast becoming a globally connected civilization, empathic consciousness is just beginning to extend to the far reaches of the biosphere and to every living creature. Unfortunately this comes right at the very moment in history when the same economic structures that are connecting us are sucking up vast reserves of the Earth's remaining resources to maintain a highly complex and interdependent urban civilization and destroying the biosphere in the process. We have come to empathize with the polar bears and penguins at the far corners of the Earth, as the ice beneath them begins to melt away from industrially induced global warming. The poles have been encased in ice for million of years, but now our scientists say that by 2030, "we may have no ice at all in the Arctic Ocean in summer." And everywhere people are beginning to ask a question never before entertained in history: Can we continue to sustain our species?
The thought of extinction, first raised with the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945 by the U.S. government, now takes on an even more dramatic urgency with the report by James Hansen, the head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, that human-induced climate change, brought on by a voracious global economy, might lead to a six-degree rise in the Earth's temperature by the end of the century, or shortly thereafter, and the demise of civilization as we've come to know it. He warns that if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm, but likely less than that. This would require a reduction beyond any current benchmark being discussed by the nations of the world.
If there were any lingering doubt as to how close our species is coming to the very limits of its sustainability on Earth, a single statistic is revealing of our current state of affairs: Our scientists tell us that the nearly seven billion human beings now inhabiting the Earth make up less than 1 percent of the total biomass of all the Earth's consumers. Yet with our complex global economic and social infrastructure, we are currently consuming nearly 24 percent of the net primary production on Earth—"the net amount of solar energy converted to plant organic matter through photosynthesis." (We will investigate the extent of the global environmental crisis in Chapter 12, The Planetary Entropic Abyss.)
The irony is that just as we are beginning to glimpse the prospect of global empathic consciousness we find ourselves close to our own extinction. We rushed to universalize empathy in the last half of the twentieth century. In the aftermath of the Holocaust in World War II, humanity said "never again." We extended empathy to large numbers of our fellow human beings previously considered to be less than human—including women, homosexuals, the disabled, people of color, and ethnic and religious minorities—and encoded our sensitivity in the form of social rights and policies, human rights laws, and now even statutes to protect animals. We are in the long end game of including "the other," "the alien," "the unrecognized." And even though the first light of this new biosphere consciousness is only barely becoming visible—traditional xenophobic biases and prejudices continue to be the norm—the simple fact that our empathic extension is now exploring previously unexplorable domains is a triumph of the human evolutionary journey.
Yet the early light of global empathic consciousness is dimmed by the growing recognition that it may come too late to address the specter of climate change and the possible extinction of the human species—a demise brought on by the evolution of ever more complex energy-consuming economic and social arrangements that allow us to deepen our sense of selfhood, bring more diverse people together, extend our empathic embrace, and expand human consciousness.
We are in a race to biosphere consciousness in a world facing the threat of extinction. Understanding the contradiction that lies at the heart of the human saga is critical if our species is to renegotiate a sustainable relationship to the planet in time to step back from the abyss.
The essential task at hand is to examine the depths of the conundrum of human history, to fully explore its workings and pathways and twists and turns so that we might find a way out of our predicament. Our journey begins at the crossroads where the laws of energy that govern the universe come up against the human inclination to continually transcend our sense of isolation by seeking the companionship of others in ever more complex energy-consuming social arrangements. The underlying dialectic of human history is the continuous feedback loop between expanding empathy and increasing entropy.
Meet the Author
One of the most popular social thinkers of our time, Jeremy Rifkin is the bestselling author of The European Dream, The Hydrogen Economy, The Age of Access, The Biotech Century, and The End of Work. A fellow at the Wharton School's Executive Education Program, he is president of The Foundation on Economic Trends in Bethesda, MD.
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