Evolution of Empathy

· Biology, Uncategorized

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Source: Muslim Sunrise, Fall 2016 volume

Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times

A Colorado woman managed to fight off a mountain lion that was attacking her 5-year-old son.

During the harrowing rescue in June of 2016, she “reached into the animal’s mouth and wrestled her son’s head from its jaws,” the Aspen Times reported.

The child was playing outside with his brother when his mother heard the sound of screaming, Pitkin County police said in a statement. She rushed outside to find a mountain lion on top of her son.

“The woman charged the animal, yanked away one of its paws and discovered her son’s whole head was in its mouth,” the Associated Press reported. She was then “able to physically remove her son from the mountain lion,” the police said.i

The evolutionary history of empathy is the history of mammals and their caring for their off springs.

We owe our existence, our maternal instinct and our empathy in general, in a materialistic sense, to a chance meteor strike and a small mammal, who survived the meteor impact that killed all the dinosaurs, some sixty million years ago and cleared the planet for the mammals to evolve in diverse forms.

The earliest mammals and those that survived extinction of dinosaurs were very small, active and mostly lived in trees.  Today, there are approximately 5,000 species of living mammals, arranged in about 125 families and 29 orders.

Most people can’t help but yawn reflexively when someone else starts doing it first. No one knows why, but researchers at the State University of New York recently learned that people better able to identify with another’s state of mind also yawn more readily in response to others. Children with autism — a condition characterized by an inability to interact socially — don’t catch yawns, scientists at the University of London’s Birkbeck College reported in 2007.

But monkeys do. Chimpanzees will yawn when shown a computer animation of another monkey yawning, Dr. de Waal and his colleagues reported in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. “Yawn contagion is not completely understood, but it is related to empathy,” he says.ii

In other words, not only humans but the primates also have empathy.

In the first case of its kind, a female chimpanzee has been observed caring for an infant with severe disabilities in the wild.

The young chimpanzee was discovered in Mahale Mountains National Park in Tanzania. Known as XT11, she lived for 23 months.

She was the sixth child of her 36-year-old mother, Christina.

Physically, XT11 was similar to a captive chimpanzee that had symptoms similar to Down syndrome.

It seems likely that XT11 only lived as long as she did because of the care provided by her mother, and that she would not have survived without it.

Reporting in the journal Primates, researchers say that the mother “responded to XT11’s abnormal behaviors, limited abilities and needs.”iii

A tiny mammal that weighed less than a chipmunk and coexisted with dinosaurs may have been an ancient forerunner to mammals and eventually humans, according to a new study.

Scientists working in Northeast China discovered the fossil of the diminutive Juramaia sinensis, which means the Jurassic mother from China, and dated the remains to about 160 million years ago, some 35 million years before the previous find for earliest mammalian ancestor.

The great evolutionary lineage that includes us had a very humble beginning, in terms of body mass, Zhe-Xi Luo, a paleontologist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh who led the team that discovered the fossil, told National Geographic.

The find offers a clue to when mammals split into placental mammals — animals, like humans, that give birth to relatively developed young which are nurtured in the womb through nutrient-rich placenta — and marsupial mammals, animals like kangaroos that spend less time pregnant and produce less mature babies.iv

Talking about empathy, “All mammals have some degree of it, and I think the origin is in maternal care,” Dr. de Waal says. “I think mammals need a mechanism like this because a female needs to be very sensitive to emotional signals that come from offspring. We just have a more powerful imagination and that amplifies our capacity for empathy.”v

The most compelling evidence for the strength of animal empathy came from a group of psychiatrists led by Jules Masserman at Northwestern University. The researchers reported in 1964 in the American Journal of Psychiatry that rhesus monkeys refused to pull a chain that delivered food to themselves if doing so gave a shock to a companion. One monkey stopped pulling the chain for 12 days after witnessing another monkey receive a shock. Those primates were literally starving themselves to avoid shocking another animal.vi

An increasing number of studies in animal behavior and neuroscience claim that empathy is not restricted to humans, and is in fact as old as the mammals, or perhaps older. Examples include dolphins saving humans from drowning or from shark attacks. Professor Tom White suggests that reports of cetaceans having three times as many spindle cells — the nerve cells that convey empathy — in their brains as we do might mean these highly-social animals have a great awareness of one another’s feelings.vii

A multitude of behaviors observed in primates, both in captivity and in the wild, and in particular in bonobos, which are reported as the most empathetic of all the primates.viii ix A recent study has demonstrated prosocial behavior elicited by empathy in rodents.x

Rodents have been shown to demonstrate empathy for cagemates (but not strangers) in pain.xi

Before the evolution of mammals the dramatic event that set the stage for empathy was the transition from asexual multiplication to sexual multiplication.

Life forms had been multiplying asexually, for almost two billion years, by simple cell division before sexual multiplication arrived on the scene.

It is rocks in Arctic Canada that hold the clues scientists were looking for in this regards. The rocks were deposited in marine tidal environments 1.2 billion years ago and they contain fossils that tell us about the first sexual reproduction.xii

A fossil called Bangiomorpha pubescens is a multicellular organism that sexually reproduced, the oldest reported occurrence in the fossil record. B. pubescens was not a fish, or even an animal. It was a form of red algae or seaweed. It was seaweed that first had sex.

The evidence that these fossils sexually reproduced is in the finding that the spores or reproductive cells they generated came in two forms – male and female. Today we know that red algae lack sperm that actively swim. They rely on water currents to transport their reproductive cells, which is likely how they have been doing it for the last 1.2 billion years.

Sexual multiplication set the stage for close bonding of the pair that we see in so many mammalian and bird species.

Interestingly, the transition of asexual to sexual multiplication on our planet earth is mentioned in the Holy Quran:

“O ye people! Be mindful of your duty to your Lord, Who created you from a single soul and created therefrom its mate, and from them twain spread many men and women; and be mindful of your duty to your Allah, in Whose name you appeal to one another, and be mindful of your duty to Him, particularly respecting ties of kinship. Indeed, Allah watches over you.”xiii

In the past, before people knew much about evolution, the Muslims interpreted this verse as referring to the prophet Adam and mother Eve and assumed that Eve came from the rib of Adam, as suggested in the Bible. But, now that increasing evidence is available that the prophet Adam was not the first man and that Eve did not come from his rib, the modern interpretation of this verse would be that it talks about the evolution of sexual multiplication, some 1.2 billion years ago. In the very first instance the first spouse did come directly from its mate and the stage for set for sexual multiplication some 1.2 billion years ago.  This is the only reasonable way to understand this verse in the light of modern science.

Sexual multiplication set the stage for two set of parents taking care of the young ones, which got refined in the mammalian species until some 5-6 million years ago, when the human lineage separated from the lineage that led to chimpanzees.

Living in small bands in harsh conditions in Africa, and breeding mainly within their own band, our hominid and early human ancestors were under intense evolutionary pressures to develop strong teamwork as a band while they competed fiercely – and often lethally – with other bands for scarce resources. Hominids started making stone tools about 2.5 million years ago and during the 100,000 generations since, the brain has tripled in size. Much of that new neural volume is used for interpersonal capacities such as empathy, language, cooperative planning, altruism, parent-child attachment, social cognition and the construction of the personal self in relationships.xiv

Homo sapiens means clever ape. We are clever to be sure, but we are clever in order to relate. It would be perhaps more accurate to call our species Homo sociabilis, the sociable ape.xv An ape that empathizes with the fellow apes!

As the caring and empathetic humans evolved the stage was set for revelation to further enhance and embellish their empathy and mutual love.

Reference: Muslim-sunrise-fall-2016

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