Does compassion make evolutionary sense? An interview with Robert Wright from the Spring 2003 issue.
A recipient of the National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism, Robert Wright is the author of The Moral Animal and Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and two daughters.
One of Buddhism’s central tenets is the illusory nature of self. How does that square with evolutionary theory?
Well, commenting on the metaphysical status of the self is above my pay grade, and I’m not sure that a Darwinian perspective sheds much direct light on it. But this perspective does help to explain another, and perhaps related, illusion about the self: the “specialness of the self.” People instinctively operate under the assumption that their own happiness is more important than other people’s happiness. And that’s because we were built by natural selection, which is all about self-preservation and self-interest. So Buddhism’s emphasis on surrendering self-interest in consideration of other beings is radically opposed to Darwinian logic.
What if you consider selfless compassion as an adaptive strategy for the group?
Our capacity for compassion is indeed something that has evolved biologically, but we’re designed to deploy it in the name of Darwinian self-interest. We’re naturally compassionate toward two kinds of people. First, to our kin, who share our genes. And second, to friends who can return the favor someday. We’re not unique here. Vampire bats, for example, express reciprocal altruism, sharing blood with other bats that will later return the favor. But when a religion or philosophy counsels you to be compassionate toward people you don’t even know, it runs against the grain of Darwinian logic.
And yet, in the situation we find ourselves in today, doesn’t it come to us naturally that it’s in our self-interest to extend compassion to those beyond our local groups?
No, it doesn’t. Because to worry about what some disenchanted Muslim teenager in Pakistan is feeling right now does not come naturally in the sense of a visceral response. It does, however, make intellectual sense; the world is moving us to a point where, if only out of self-interest, we need to think about that person. One virtue of some of the religious traditions is that they have well-worked-out procedures for assisting this intellectual process. In other words, it’s one thing to realize logically that my fate is intertwined with the fate of Muslims around the world: if they’re unhappy, they’ll eventually make me unhappy. But it’s another to feel it, to look at someone and get a deep sense of fraternity with them. That’s where religious practice plays an important role. In Buddhism, there is metta meditation, in which we cultivate compassion for all sentient beings. This sort of practice is what I would consider a product of cultural evolution.
What do you mean by “cultural evolution”?
By cultural evolution I mean evolution that arises from the selective transmission of nongenetic information. That is to say, the evolution of technologies, the evolution of ideas, the evolution of political systems, religious doctrines. And, as with biological evolution, in cultural evolution there is a tendency to move in a specific—almost inevitable—direction.
In your work, you refer to that tendency as “directionality.” Can you say something about that?
Directionality in cultural evolution means that it was very likely that social complexity would grow in scope and in depth, just as biological complexity grew in many lineages—human beings as a case in point. So even back in the Stone Age, it was almost certain that the scope of social organization would grow beyond a single hunter-gatherer village. I contend that our increasingly globally organized society—certainly at the economic level, and to some extent at the political level—was very likely the outcome all along. The basic driving force was technological evolution, notably the evolution of technologies that facilitate productive interaction—technologies like writing and the printing press and the Internet, and the wheel and the sailing ship and the railroad train, and so on. And one interesting feature of this is that the fortunes of people in one part of the world become more and more correlated with the fortunes of people far, far away. In technical terms, that means we’ve arrived at a non-zero-sum relationship.
What do you mean by “non-zero-sum”?
One of the most basic aspects of the direction of human history is that it has brought people at greater and greater distances into a web of shared destiny. So that what’s good for a person in one part of the world ultimately can be good for someone in another part of the world. Or, conversely, what’s bad for someone is bad for others distantly situated. Disease spreads rapidly around the world; an economic collapse in one part of the world has a ripple effect; the discontents of people on one side of the world can turn into terrorism on the other. It serves our self-interest to concern ourselves with the welfare of people at great distances from us, people we’ll never know.
It is common for Western Buddhists to emphasize the recognition of interconnectedness. Directionality, as you describe it, seems to include a gradual awakening to this fact.
Herbert Spencer said something like, “No man can be perfectly happy until all are happy.” That’s kind of the logic that a non-zero-sum relationship drives you to. The philosopher Peter Singer wrote a book called The Expanding Circle. It’s about how, over time, we begin to realize we’re all in the same boat. Twenty-five hundred years ago, Greek members of one city-state considered members of another literally subhuman. But eventually they reached a point where they decided, No, all Greeks are human, it’s just the Persians, you know, who aren’t human. Singer points out that over time our moral considerations have become more inclusive: the circle has expanded until most of us would say that people everywhere are human beings, regardless of race, creed, or color, and that they deserve equal rights, consideration, and so on.
Why is this conclusion the necessary outcome?
In many ways, we seem to be more at odds with one another than ever. My own answer gets back to this very trend I’m talking about: that as history goes on, we find ourselves in an ever-closer interdependent relationship with people globally. Even if only selfishly, you have to concede their basic humanity. If you’re doing business with people in Japan, if they’re making your minivan, you can’t very well bomb them back into the Stone Age. I think that’s one reason why this cosmopolitan ethos is most pronounced in nations that are most embedded in a globally interdependent economy, and it’s interesting that in this way the logic of history adds a kind of pragmatic force to the moral arguments. It’s in our interest to treat one another well.
And yet people do give in to anger, destroying themselves or others; and globalization, for all its implications of interconnectedness, means that there are now global threats.
Sure. Our minds were designed to navigate the social environment of a hunter-gatherer village. That’s the context in which human evolution took place. In an environment like that, often it was in your enlightened self-interest to express rage, because it taught people to respect your sphere. Murder happened, though not very easily, and could be “adaptive” in a biological sense. But there were two features that applied then that don’t now. One was that everybody you dealt with, you could expect to deal with again. You may have noticed that often when you’re driving along in your car and somebody cuts you off, you feel rage. Unless you’re a particularly good Buddhist, you may briefly want some harm to befall that person. Right?
Now examine the logic of that outside of a hunter-gatherer environment. That person’s never going to deal with you again, so why should you teach them a lesson? What’s the good of teaching that person that you’re not to be trifled with? In a contemporary context, it’s a completely irrational reaction; it was designed for an environment in which you didn’t have these anonymous encounters. That’s one thing that’s changed since evolution.
And the other?
There weren’t guns and nuclear weapons around then. In our early environment, physically expressing rage was not as likely to lead to death—certainly not mass death—as it is today.
Considering the many thousands of years of evolution that have shaped us, if spiritual practice is designed to counter what comes “naturally,” we face quite a challenge.
Yes, and I think the scale of that challenge is something that Buddhism implicitly recognizes. Evolution designed us to pursue self-interest and get our genes into the next generation. But it did not design us to be happy. In fact, happiness is something that is designed by natural selection to evaporate. It is designed not to last but to keep you motivated. If you imagine an animal that upon having sex says, “Okay, I’m happy forever now,” that’s an animal whose genes are going to lose out to a different animal that says, “Well, that was fun, but I want to do it again, you know.” This is the reason that gratification is so fleeting, and this is something that Buddhism addresses very fundamentally. Unhappiness—suffering—is a given, and at the very heart of the Buddhist teachings. Buddhism recognizes that it is an illusion to think that the things you desire are going to bring you lasting happiness; in fact, the opposite is true. Once again we will find ourselves in the state of thirst, in the state of hunger, the state of unhappiness. If you think about it, there was a crying need for somebody to diagnose the problem, to stress that happiness is fleeting and just leaves us craving more.
But in this way it seems that cultural evolution—which makes attempts, however successful or not, to address suffering—can find itself at odds with or countering biological evolution.
Absolutely. Or, to put a finer point on it, you might say that cultural evolution can counter the drives and imperatives that biological evolution engrained in us. And the Buddha is an example of that. On the other hand, another thing cultural evolution can do is compound problems that biological evolution built into us. Consider drug addiction. The existence of drugs makes it so easy to attain gratification without doing any work. The problem of fleeting gratification becomes even deeper than it would be in a natural environment. Or consider the existence of refined sugar, of sweets, of junk food. I’m sure there are people who have been driven to Buddhism by the specific problem of eating junk food. This is a problem that just wouldn’t exist if we were in the hunter-gatherer environment. Cultural evolution, by catering to our desires, has created things that compound the problem that the Buddha diagnosed. Even by the time the Buddha lived, this was true. He was born to great privilege, so he had a relatively easy time gratifying his desires. And, by virtue of being born to privilege, he may have experienced the problem more acutely than others did. Nowadays, a good a number of people in America, both rich and poor, can experience the problem very profoundly. Because even poor people can buy drugs.
Or Hostess Twinkies.
Do you think that the freedom the Buddha teaches is realistic, given the power of biological imperative?
All I can say is that biological drives sure seem strong! Speaking as someone who perennially flirts with meditation and wrestles with the problem of self-discipline, it’s no surprise that if you’re going to seriously take on the Darwinian logic built into us, you really have to turn it into a rigorous spiritual practice. One thing that struck me in learning about evolutionary psychology and writing about it is that it illuminates the human predicament. It brings you into touch not just with the addictive nature of being human but also the myriad moral and defensive cognitive biases we have, like the way we judge our rivals very unfairly. But what also struck me is that just being aware of our selfish bias does little to help correct it. That’s why there is religious practice. That’s why people spend time meditating, or go off to monasteries; they understand the challenge.
In The Moral Animal, you wryly refer to children as “those endearing little vehicles of genetic transmission.” Funny as that description is, people are reluctant to consign their love to genetic self-interest.
Of course. But I think that accepting the biological roots of our makeup, and the selfish biological imperative, is the first step in moving toward enlightenment. It’s an amazing thing when you contemplate that the very contours of your daily consciousness—what moral judgments you make, how you think about yourself—is the legacy of this ridiculous process of selective genetic transmission. Still, that is the criterion by which human nature was designed—which traits will get the most genes into the next generation. The first step toward moral enlightenment can be to acknowledge this grim reality. Including the fact that ultimately the only reason you love your kids is that they are carrying your genes. (There’s a little footnote I’d add to that: you actually can learn to love kids who aren’t carrying your genes, but it’s harder, and you have to do things to fool Mother Nature.)
It may seem crass to make love sound so mechanical. But I still think that realizing the arbitrariness of your love for your children is the first step in realizing the arbitrariness of your hatred of the people you hate. Or the arbitrariness of your indifference to the people you’re indifferent to. It’s all part of the same logic.
If you consider what we face, it gives a whole new meaning to the diligence dharma teachers tell us is required.
That's right. You're trying to counteract forces that were millions of years in the making and that are still very fundamentally at the core of your being. A lot of people might consider the cold Darwinian facts to be very depressing and leave it at that. But I think that understanding them is the beginning of dealing with them positively.
Your idea of directionality implies a predestined end point. Any thoughts as to what that might be?
I don’t purport to know what the end point is, and I don’t think anything is completely predestined. But I do contend that we are at a crossroads: I’d say that we either recognize that our fate is intertwined with the fate of others around the world and act appropriately morally and politically, or we are in danger of an epic global setback. Maybe not in the sense of literally destroying every human in the world, but precipitating a major social collapse, mass death, something that would take a very long time to recover from. In any event, we certainly have been growing in the direction of interdependence. More and more, human society has the cast of a kind of superorganism. It makes more and more sense to talk about the human species as constituting a kind of global brain: if you want to think of the entire ecosystem of the earth as one organism, then we would be the cerebral tissue. Julian Huxley said that evolution can be described as the universe becoming aware of itself.
Do you see an inevitable push toward awakening?
In a sense, yes. I think once the seeds of life were planted, consciousness was essentially inevitable. Given the basic nature of natural selection, you are likely, sooner or later, to wind up with an intelligent species that’s intelligent roughly in the way that we are, capable of reflecting on its environment and reflecting on itself. Natural selection seems to be a process that by its nature builds vehicles for ever richer forms of consciousness. That alone is spiritually suggestive. It suggests that maybe there’s some larger purpose here that we are in the process of realizing, that we’re a manifestation of. And as for what that purpose might be—it’s certainly interesting that the whole coevolutionary process has now moved us to a point where our very survival depends more and more on moral enlightenment, on realizing that other people’s interests deserve our attention. Further, the more we’re embedded in this technological web of intellectual interaction, the more it seems you could start thinking about a unified consciousness at the social level, progressing toward planetary consciousness. Of course, that could be a long way off. Still, it seems to me that from the very beginning of life on earth, the seeds were being planted for something very interesting and spiritually rich.