Empathy No Longer Divides Humans And Chimps. What Now?

Empathy No Longer Divides Humans And Chimps. What Now?

by Aravindan Neelakandan - Nov 29, 2015 01:30 PM +05:30 IST
Empathy No Longer Divides Humans And Chimps. What Now?

New research shows that the gulf that separates us humans from our evolutionary cousins is quite narrow. How do we reconcile with the fact that the Chimps are closer to humans than we had ever imagined?

Once upon a time there was a line that divided humanity from the rest of animal kingdom, and it was quite concrete. However, as scientific explorations get deeper and wider, the line becomes more and more blurred, particularly in the case of other primates belonging to the ape family. Already in 1872 Charles Darwin had arrived at the conclusion that emotions and behavior of humans and that of other animals differ more in degree than in kind. We somehow sustain the need to retain an unbridgeable gulf between the human species and the rest of animal kingdom.

In His image, the definite dividing line

The Christian concept of man as being made in the image of God, is interpreted in higher theology as man’s rich inner life being the reflection of the image of God – this humans alone possess. So theologically at least an unbridgeable gulf exists between humans and rest of animal kingdom – even in the case of the closest evolutionary cousins with whom we exchange genomic notes –the chimpanzees.

Empathy No Longer Divides Humans And Chimps. What Now?

We held earlier that humans alone can make tools. When Jane Goodall proved that chimps use and make tools we moved on to cognitive skills and inner cognitive states. Even here the chimpanzee’s ability to learn a language and ability to do creative errors in sign language blurred the distinction. So, we then moved on to empathy. A 2005 paper published in Nature argued that while ‘humans are an unusually prosocial species,’ in non-human primates it ‘is mainly limited to kin and reciprocating partners, and is virtually never extended to unfamiliar individuals’.

Meanwhile, experiments conducted at the Wolfgang Köhler Primate Research Center at the Leipzig Zoo brought out yet another set of surprising results. The experiment that was conducted from 2003 to 2007 administered multiple cognitive tests to 106 chimpanzees at two African wildlife sanctuaries, 32 orangutans in Indonesia and 105 toddlers, aged two and a half years. The results were surprising.

In all three species were tested on spatial reasoning ability to discriminate whether quantities were large or small, and an understanding of cause-and-effect relationships. It turned out that the toddlers and the chimpanzees scored almost identically on these tests. So where do the humans score? Human children score better on cognitive tests related to social skills.

Empathy No Longer Divides Humans And Chimps. What Now?

[picture courtesy: BBC]

From where do these uniquely human social cognitive skills develop? According to Esther Herrmann of the developmental and comparative psychology department at the Max Planck Institute who conducted the study ‘social cognitive abilities are the key skills that make us special in comparison to other animals.’ These social cognitive abilities center around what Gary Stix calls ‘a special capacity for engaging in figurative “mind reading” of another person’s thoughts.’

In this connection Gary Stix makes an important observation: ‘Archaic humans may have pointed, as chimpanzees do today, to convey commands—“Give me this” or “Do that”—a form of communication centered on an individual’s needs. Chimps, perhaps reminiscent of humans in a primeval past, still make no attempt to use these gestures for teaching or passing along information.’

So have we zeroed in on the real gulf that distinguishes us from the rest of animal kingdom and thus makes us real human? Is empathy the divine quality that belongs to the inexplicable Source that is reflected only in humans?

Filling the gaps with yawns and eyes

Interestingly in 2009 Matthew Campbell and his coworkers discovered an interesting phenomenon. Humans empathize with the behaviour of fictional animated characters, for example, in behaviours like yawning. They wanted to see if non-human primates also exhibit such empathy based response. They presented 24 chimpanzees with three-dimensional computer-animated chimpanzees yawning or displaying control mouth movements. The apes yawned significantly more in response to the yawn animations than to the controls, implying identification with the animations.

Empathy No Longer Divides Humans And Chimps. What Now?

In 2014 Campbell and Frans de Waal, took their previous experiment even a step further. They tried to see if the chimpanzees yawn when they are shown a variety of closely related primate videos, including those of humans. They surely exhibited empathic yawning behaviour transcending species barrier in the case of humans.

So the paper concludes that while ‘human empathy can extend to strangers and even other species’ the experiment found that chimpanzees ‘formed an empathic connection with a different species, including unknown members of that species’ implying that ‘human empathic flexibility is shared with related species.’

Empathy No Longer Divides Humans And Chimps. What Now?

In 2014, another group of researchers (Kret-et al) reported that chimpanzees share with humans the capacity to unconsciously dilate their pupils to match those of another member of the same species. Eight chimp and eighteen human participants were shown images of both humans and chimp eyes with either dilated or constricted pupils. The researchers found that both humans and chimps mimicked pupil dilation more strongly in response to their species, although the reaction was slightly stronger in humans. The effect was also the strongest in mothers.

The conclusion is inevitable-

Evolutionary theory implies that the propensity to mimic pupil size should be especially adaptive within groups. In line with this assumption, pupil-mimicry is shared among humans and chimpanzees and is stronger during interactions with members of one’s species than during interactions with members of the other species. Humans most likely evolved their communicative eyes with clear eye-white and fine musculature precisely because it benefits within-group interactions, survival, and prosperity.

The Scientist magazine in its report on this discovery says-

The results suggest this involuntary action likely evolved to help humans and chimps communicate sympathy and strengthen social bonds within groups. In face-to-face interactions, people often involuntarily imitate each other’s facial expressions, eye blinks, or pupil size to convey empathy. These physical cues help communicate emotions to both individuals in the interaction, facilitating trust and cooperation within groups.

In other words, the ability and tendency to expand beyond the narrow self and embracing the other as one’s self has been the defining character of what made us as an intelligent species. This is a phenomenon that can happen again with other species as well. Incidentally, we may have also stumbled upon the very basis of empathy.

The Slumber and the trigger

So if chimps can empathize why have they not ‘evolved’ socio-culturally as we have done?

The big-bang of human cultural evolution happened 40,000 years ago. The current human brain size itself was arrived at in our evolution 200,000 years ago. So why did the cultural explosion not happen for 150,000 years? Archeologist Steve Mithen has suggested that three separate neural modules – one for social intelligence, another for mechanical intelligence and yet another for natural classification – got integrated due to a genetic change.

Empathy No Longer Divides Humans And Chimps. What Now?

However, neurologist V.S.Ramachandran differs with Mithen. To Ramachandran, the cultural explosion occurred ‘because certain critical environmental triggers acted on a brain that had already become big for some other reason and was therefore “pre-adapted” for those cultural innovations that make us uniquely human.’

One such ‘uniquely human’ pre-adaptation according to the neurologist is the ‘mirror neurons’, incidentally discovered in monkeys by Giaccamo Rizzollati. He relates the sudden spread of art, culture and language to the pre-adaptation already in human brains – mirror neurons.

Mirror neurons are the neurological basis of empathy. They are very much there in our evolutionary cousins – Chimpanzees. The mirror neurons dissolve boundaries of the small ‘I’ and expand awareness to others. It is this ability and movement to transcend the narrow self that has brought out all the evolution, and it most probably knows no species barriers (which we have erected in our arrogance).

An Indic approach

Interestingly the ability to extend empathy beyond one’s species has been the basis of Indic spiritual systems for long. Even the conception of God or a divine source may be just a tool to achieve this state of expansion. In his article titled ‘The Value of the World as the Mystery of God in Advaita Vedanta’ philosopher Prof. Anantanand Rambachan states that the ‘Advaita proposition about the essential unity of all existence in and through God… requires the development of a sense of identity and empathy with the natural world.’

Natural empathy heightened by such a sense of ‘external’ empathy can create a milieu that shall ensure the prosperity and continuity of the species at times of crisis and threatening situations.

So what is the Indic term for empathy?

Theologian Ted Peters while studying the perspective of religious traditions on gene therapies and stem cell research points to the term ‘Daya’. According to him, in Hindu tradition, ‘the response to disease must be with daya (compassion)’ and ‘Daya is not pity but empathy – empathy that is based on the realization of our interdependence and interconnectedness.’ 

Empathy No Longer Divides Humans And Chimps. What Now?

However a more primordial, fundamental and hence opt term is ‘Anukampa’. It is a Vedic term in which the Vedic divinities feel and unite with the mental state of the hymn singer and thus address his problems. In later Hinduism and Buddhism, the term becomes a central triggering process that unleashes divine compassion on all existence.

According to Indologist Rhys Davids the etymological root of the word Anukampa is “to vibrate towards or after”. Eminent psychiatrist late Dr. R.L.Kapur considers it ‘an ability to vibrate with the world’ and makes it the basis for consciousness itself.

According to Bhagavat Gita, it is the divine empathy (anukampa) which makes the Divine abide and shine in human beings as gnosis.  In a complementary reversal of the same statement the Tamil saint Thriuvalluvar considers empathy towards the fellow beings as the ultimate end of knowledge. ‘What is the use of knowledge if one cannot feel the pain of the other as one’s own?’  Vedanta Desika, fourteenth century Acharya of Sri Vaishanvism, in his ‘Daya Satakam’ considers empathy as that primordial stirring in the Divine that propels it towards evolution and dissolution.

Our past as our future?

The empathic flexibility that transcends one’s species could have played a crucial role in the early development of human species themselves. Evolutionists today posit that at one point in deep time along with Homo sapiens there also existed Homo neanderthalensis, ‘Homo denisova’ and Homo floresiensis – the so-called hobbit humans. So what happened to these Homo species?

Even before the discovery of denisovan hominins and ‘Flores men’, with relation to the possible other hominids Carl Sagan had suggested that we massacred them all on our way to ascendancy. When narrating human evolution set in a poetically Biblical imagery Sagan contends that we killed competing hominids. He even wonders if ‘our myths about gnomes, trolls, giants, and dwarfs could be a genetic or cultural memory of those times.’ Nevertheless, we killed ‘even in Eden many man like animals’.

The same framework has been extended till quite recently. Based on isolated archeological discoveries as late as 2009 it was concluded, at least in the case of Neanderthals, that ‘contact between Neanderthals and humans was often violent and may have played a part in the extinction of our closest prehistoric relatives.’ However, there is another possible scenario.

Empathy No Longer Divides Humans And Chimps. What Now?

The increased genetic analysis shows that the three Homo species shared genes. Surely there were violent confrontations but there were also positive interactions, perhaps even mutual cohabitations. This happened, particularly in the Southeast Asian region. Denisovans were the evolutionary cousins of Neanderthals. They were known only from the DNA in tooth and bone fragments found in Siberia. But they had spread as far as South East Asia where they interbred with Homo sapiens.

Mark Stoneking, specializing in evolutionary anthropology at Max Planck Institute compared the Denisovan genome with 33 populations from mainland Asia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Polynesia, Australia and Papua New Guinea. He found Denisovan genes in east Indonesia, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and Polynesia.

Now with such genetic studies the new scenario that is emerging is not that of violent replacement of other hominin species by humans but a long period of interaction, even interbreeding and perhaps gradual assimilation. According to Tom Higham of the University of Oxford we have a genetic legacy from Neanderthals of about 1 to 2 percent. So the emerging view now is that the ‘Neanderthals may not even have truly disappeared, but instead have been assimilated into modern human populations’.

What would have happened had all these species shared the planet together? Some believe that human species cannot even handle in-species cultural and ethnic differences and often resort to large-scale murder through massacre and war to destroy the ‘other.’ Cadell Last, evolutionary anthropologist doing research at Global Brain Institute is blunt and considers the early extinction of these species as ‘fortunate’:

If different species of humans existed throughout modern humans recorded history I think there is no chance that we would have co-existed with them peacefully. This might be a dark commentary on our nature, but I think our past has shown that when it comes to difference, we have the capacity for mind-numbing levels of cruelty.

But this is not only our past. It can also be our future. Today we are teaching chimpanzees sign languages, and many chimps that are taught these languages are being released into the wilderness. Researches have repeatedly shown that chimps show almost all ‘unique’ human abilities including tool making, cognitive abilities and empathy. So soon we may encounter chimps that may ask for their rightful place in sharing the natural resources of the planet as fellow intelligent evolutionary cousins of humanity and given the way we have been destroying their natural habitats and taking them into captivity –for both research and entertainment- they may even ask for justice.

Planet of the Apes versus Ramayana

A conflict seems inevitable and is the theme of many science fiction books as well as Hollywood blockbusters like the ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’. (The original ‘Planet of the Apes’ was a satire on the lines of Jonathan Swift). No doubt these conflict-based scenarios are influenced by the narrative of our past – depicting humans as the all-conquering human species extinguishing fellow hominins.

Does there exist an alternative?

Empathy No Longer Divides Humans And Chimps. What Now?

Perhaps Ramayana holds the key. This epic shows at least three different human categories. The humans, the monkeys and the Asuras – each of these species are shown as intelligent and cultured in their terms.

While the Asuras are shown as supremacist, the epic shows that a relationship based on mutual respect and cooperation is possible between all the three intelligent human and human-like species. And how was that relation made possible?

Empathy No Longer Divides Humans And Chimps. What Now?

According to Vedanta Desika, it is through empathy that even the Divine came and became equal with the hunter chieftain, the king of monkeys, the Asura chieftain Vibeeshana, a poor Brahmin, a hunchback and so on.

Ramayana may or may not be a distant memory of human species interacting with the different hominins, but it does provide a popular emotional framework for such coexistence and also a deep psychological principle to achieve it. I do not believe that Ramayana actually depicts a past memory of the other hominin species. But I do believe that it provides a framework for the co-existence of different hominin species.

Who knows? After human species cease to be even a memory in the history of the planet, the Deity who sits under the banyan tree with his palm depicting Advaitic Chin Mutra – may belong most probably to a chimpanzee – a Vedantic Advaitic Chimpanzee.

The writer also wishes to express his gratitude to Santhinidevi Ramasamy for her valuable inputs .


1) Charles Darwin, ‘The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals’, 1872
2) Joan B Silk, Chimpanzees are indifferent to the welfare of unrelated group members, Nature 437, 1357-1359, 27 October 2005
3) Gary Stix, The ‘it’ factor, Scientific American, September 2014
4) Mattthew Campbell et al, Computer animations stimulate contagious yawning in chimpanzees, Proc. R. Soc., Vol. 276, Iss.1676, Dec.2009
5) Matthew Campbell & Frans de Waal, Chimpanzees empathize with group mates and humans, but not with baboons or unfamiliar chimpanzees, Proc. R. Soc , Vol: 281 Issue: 1782, May 2014
6) Kret et al, Chimpanzees and Humans Mimic Pupil-Size of Conspecifics, PLOS, August 20, 2014
7) Jyoti Madhusoodanan, Chimps Empath-eyes?, The Scientist, 25-August-2014
8) http://www.cogsci.ucsd.edu/~rik/courses/cogs1_w10/readings/ramachandran00.pdf
9) Anantanand Rambachan, The Value of the World as the Mystery of God in Advaita Vedanta, Journal of Dharma 14 (3):287-297 (1989)
10) T.Peters et al., Religious traditions and Genetic Enhancement, in Altering Nature: Volume II: Religion, Biotechnology, and Public Policy, Springer, 2008, p.143
11) C.A.F.Rhys Davids, 1916, quoted in Harvey Aronson, Love and Sympathy in Theravāda Buddhism’, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1980, p.98
12) R.L.Kapur, Can Indian spiritual practices be used in psychotherapy, in ‘The Roar of Awakening: A Whiteheadian Dialogue Between Western Psychotherapies and Eastern Worldviews’ (Ed. George Derfer, Zhihe Wang, Michel Weber), Walter de Gruyter,2009, p.110
13) Bhagavat Gita, 10:11
14) Thirukural 315
15) Daya Satakam verse:16
16) Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden, Ballantine Books, 1977, pp.96-9
17) Eben Harrell, CSI Stone Age: Did Humans Kill Neanderthals?, Time, 24-July-2009
18) Michael Marshall, The vast Asian realm of the lost humans, New Scientist, 28 September 2011
19) Charles Q. Choi, Humans did not wipe out the Neanderthals, New research suggests, Live Science, 20-Aug-2014, url:http://www.livescience.com/47460-neanderthal-extinction-revealed.html
20) Cadell Last, A World With More Than One Human Species, url:http://theadvancedapes.com/20121016a-world-with-more-than-one-human-species/
21) Daya Satakam, verse 65

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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