Soft wired for empathy

Work in the field of community economic development made me a fan of Jeremy Rifkin, whose ideas always challenge the status quo. His most recent book, The Empathic Civilization, challenges conventional thinking about human nature.

In this animated talk, Rifkin says new brain and neuropsychology research and child development “suggest we are actually soft wired not for aggression and violence and self-interest and utilitarianism; that we are actually soft wired for sociability, attachment…affection, companionship, and that the first drive is the drive to actually belong.”

Empathy, he says, is a function of our mortality. Once we learn that we are vulnerable and that we die (about age eight), we learn to empathize with the lives of others.

He began his research to discover how consciousness changes through history and whether it is possible for human beings to extend empathy to the entire human race, to our fellow creatures, and to the biosphere. Without that, Rifkin does not see a future for us.

The animated video gives me hope. I’m going to read his book, and I’m going to keep blogging. I think we’re onto something good here.

My thanks to Cathy Richards for pointing me toward this engaging and ironic talk by Robert Wright. He warns of the dangers of lethal hatred in the world but ends with this bright note: “All the salvation of the world requires is the intelligent pursuit of self-interest, in a disciplined and careful way. It’s gonna be hard. I say we just give it a shot anyway because we’ve just come too far to screw it up now.”

Here’s the full talk on TED.

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