Curiosity Over Pride (FYI: To comment, send an e-mail to

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Empathy and Social Darwinism

By happenstance, I heard the last 45 minutes of the Diane Rehm show today on NPR. There was a professor who discussed empathy in nature. What really piqued my interest was that almost as soon as I started listening, he started discussing Social Darwinism.

You can listen to the program here (Real Audio)

or here. (Windows Media)

Here is a link to the program page.

Professor Frans de Waal starts discussing Social Darwinism at about the 10-minute mark. Diane Rehm asks again about the cognitive dissonance (not her words, but the idea) of those who advocate Social Darwinism often not believing in scientific Darwinism (see my last link) at about the 18-minute mark.

I have mentioned Social Darwinism in several of my posts:

Favoritism for the Wealthy

State of the Union Response

The New Apprentice

Health Care's Moral Argument, Part 1

Professor de Waal has a book entitled The Age of Empathy.

Another reason why I thought of this topic is because Professor de Waal discusses the need for cooperation in human relations, which is a common theme in Thai's comments.


Dink said...

The last openly S.D.ists I encountered were right before the real estate bubble popped. One guy complained that his renters (read "serfs") were buying condos instead of making him richer. The other was a lady who was pretty much bragging about how outrageously she had lied on her rental home mortgage application. I'm sure they're both now poster children for "Those Who Thought They Were Fittest....SURPRISE!" club.

Side note on individual burden vs. societal burden: this guy at Crater Lake locked his keys in his car. An authority of some sort told him he'd have to call a locksmith (dozens of miles away). The guy was outraged that the authorities had no methods in place to help him. The authority was outraged that the guy was outraged. Two viewpoints very hard to reconcile...

Debra said...

Thanks, Okie for this really interesting post.
I couldn't listen to the program, but managed to check out the left-over questions, and I'm going to respond primarily to YOUR post about favoritism of the wealthy (otherwise I'd spend the morning in front of the machine, which is perhaps not too... PRODUCTIVE, right ?).
Social Darwinism is a form of disguised... Protestant feeling of entitlement. It is a more modern justification for attitudes that are fundamentally human : feeling that YOU'RE right and good, and that the other guy, if HE IS NOT LIKE YOU, and not doing WHAT you're doing, is not only wrong, but misguided, bad, sinful, every age coins a new term to "explain" these feelings.
It took me a while to figure out how the Protestant churches were having their cake and eating it too : by extending their belief in the Old Testament, and integrating Jewish attitudes towards the LAW (yup, that's right, ALL capital letters for the LAW in Judaism...) they could claim that they were Christians because they believed in Jesus, and... JEWS (in all but name...) because they believed in Old Testament tenets. But... the catch is that Jesus really institued a schism in Judaism, that the early CATHOLIC church leaders acknowledged and worked upon. And going back to the Old Testament is just NOT CHRISTIAN...
For taxation and the aristocracy, I keep saying that all societies NEED to promote certain groups of people who do not need to slave day in and day out in order to stick a piece of bread in their mouths.
I am not sure that making sure that everyone slaves is the best way to create a PRODUCTIVE, INNOVATIVE society.
And men and women almost instinctively want to be able to look up to other men and women to admire them.
The question in MY BOOK is : what kind of aristocracy do WE want, and how are we going to go about creating it ?
Now we have an aristocracy based on the possession of filthy lucre. Basta. In the old days, aristocracy was based on the possession of land.
Think about it : in the first case, the aristocracy ensures that filthy lucre becomes the be-all and end-all of human desire, the value on which all human activity hinges. In the second case, the land based aristocracy "ensured" (badly, I agree) that land, and not filthy lucre was that value.
Who said "where your treasure is, there will your heart be also ?".... ?

Thai said...

Okie, welcome back and great post!

You know cooperation and cognitive dissonance are some of my FAVORITE topics! (Though I never knew the term cognitive dissonance till you introduced me to it a couple of years ago).

Deb, I will let you argue "what kind of aristocracy do WE want" with Okie yourself.

I am sure the two of you will have a wonderful discussion. ;-)

Okie I will DEFINITELY listen to these my friend and get back to you on this... Indeed I am sad I missed the show as I have been a regular Diane Rhem listener for years but have been off sync with her show times of late.

Be well

Thai said...

Social Darwinism is pseudo science of the very worst kind imo- agreed.

Great program! I loved it although the cognitive dissonance of this post was at times a little much; clearly this was made for public radio and it stayed in the family broadcast theme.

Take the intro on health care: we spend 16-17% GDP on health care, more than any other country on this planet.

1/2 of this spending is by government alone. Indeed the government portion of health care spending is more than almost any other country on this planet.

By the standards of many (most) observers, America is the most compassionate society on the planet.

I understand some don't like the way we spend it but I also understand others do.

As for cooperation (one of my favorite topics as you are well aware), I agree 100% with what your professor is saying AND his talk is exactly 50% of the topic.

And I would criticize him from an academic standpoint that IF he truly believes everything he is saying is the complete picture, then he does not understand evolution.

It is as if he sees the left half of the sphere but is totally unaware a right half even exists.

I completely agree with what he is saying re: the importance of empathy and its central role in cooperation. It is just this a very incomplete description of this issue.

Remember evolutionary psychologists feel the primary differences between humans and other animals is our ability to cooperate with unrelated members of the same species and the use of tools (which if you think about it is also a form of cooperation).

Listen to the whole story; this is only 1/2.

Without trying to sound offensive, you (and this professor) seem trapped in a moral matrix.

This is not a complete picture at all but I do like and agree with this particular viewpoint of the picture.

Be well

Debra said...

America the most compassionate society on the planet ???
Even if you are referring exclusively to the health care problem, Thai, this sounds incredibly naive to me.
Re, cooperating with unrelated members of the same species, and tool-making : rather reductionist ideas of what COULD make humans a different kind of species.
I like the idea of the possibility of cooperating with different members from DIFFERENT species better.
But we are light years away from this, so far...

Thai said...

Deb, Pinker makes the case for "conceptual semantics", the idea that the brain itself has a language separate from language and linguistics and that these sit atop this more basic brain language.

This very basic brain language (think of it as the brain's equivalent of a computer programmer's machine language) is made up of infinite "combinatorics" of ideas based on movement, position, substance, etc...

e.g. we arose from mud and we use the basic framework of mud and substance to create a semantic system through the combanitorics of these most basic elements.

Language and linguistics itself sit atop this conceptual semantics framework.

So there are in effect levels of language that sit upon levels of language that sit on levels of language, etc...

Dink, here is a review oddly enough written by Douglas Hofstadter, author of the book "I Am a Strange Loop" that I recommended recently.

I only recently made the connection myself.

There are some truly bright people in this field.

Deb and SS, you "think" with amazing company


Thai said...

Re: I like the idea of the possibility of cooperating with different members from DIFFERENT species

Deb, remember Sasha ;-)

Debra said...

I'm going to be REALLY SNARKY here, Thai, but I just can't help it...
I'm "glad" that PInker is making a percentage of those 30 filthy lucres that are charged for this book.
I'm "glad" that HE and others have "discovered" this glose.
BECAUSE... Pinker's ideas have been around for a long, long time.
The catch, Thai, is the catch that Freud got trapped in, although in an odd way, Freud never allowed himself to be completely caught in it BECAUSE HE ALWAYS INSISTED that psychoanalysis be open to LAY people, and not reserved exclusively for doctors, or SCIENTISTS.
I'm glad that PInker THINKS that he is a scientist.
But... just what makes him a scientist on this subject ??? (Yes, words are VERY important...)
I have a 40 year old book downstairs that goes into some rather sophisticated analysis of the nature of verbs : iterative, punctual, verb of state, whatever, here I'm not going to go into detail. The people who wrote that book did not claim to be... scientists.
I DEFINITELY DISAGREE that the brain has some kind of fundamental language that precedes the verbal language that we supposedly glue over it.
This debate has probably been around since caveman days too.
This hypothesis goes against everything I know and believe...
I hope I'm not bursting your bubble, Thai, but Pinker is just too much for me in your link.

Thai said...

Deb re: "I DEFINITELY DISAGREE that the brain has some kind of fundamental language that precedes the verbal language that we supposedly glue over it."

Deb, my knowledge of this issue is one book, one perspective, nothing more.

I would love to hear why you feel this is not the case.

Having said this, the book goes on to describe a number of experiments linguists have recently done to answer of whether there is a separate "brain language" or not.

The experiments conclude there is a separate brain language.

I cannot comment on whether these truly conclude this or not as I just read about this for the first time.

Are you aware of these experiments or do you think these have problems?

Debra said...

No, I don't know anything about these experiments.
Right now, I have in mind your link about the particles, and what happens when they are observed, Thai.

The Most Fabulous Objects In The World

  • Hitchhiker's Guide To The Universe trilogy
  • Lord of the Rings trilogy
  • Flight of the Conchords
  • Time Bandits