Tuesday, 1 January 2013

The Sexual Adventures of Fruit Bats and Extending Human Empathy

In a few paragraphs this title will make much more sense, I promise…
The idea of the ‘Empathic Civilisation’ is as grandiose and idyllic as the expression would suggest. It is a global cultural shift, described by Jeremy Rifkin, characterised by the extension of human empathy to every other person and living creature upon the planet, so that this empathy becomes consistent with the profound and far-reaching impacts that our actions have come to bear.
As ambitious as this shift may seem, if it can be realised, it could prove to be a valuable step towards eradicating the daunting array of social and environmental issues that persist throughout the modern world, and facilitating the development of a fair and sustainable global society.
And the essential question is, if we can’t achieve this, does a global civilization have any chance of surviving? Or will it simply implode under the weight of perpetual social and environmental catastrophes, dissolving into detached societies on a scale that we have the capacity to regulate?
Fortunately, despite the overwhelming nature of this transformation, his argument arouses a far greater feeling of optimism (for me at least) than might be expected.
‘Soft wired’ for empathy?
His argument begins with a discovery of modern brain science, namely that humans are ‘soft wired’ to feel empathy for others via the use of ‘mirror neurons’. These are the part of our brains that allow us the capacity to feel the experiences of others as we perceive them in particular situations.
Now this probably doesn’t come as much of a revelation, as most of us have had fairly extensive personal experiences of this feeling, and are fully conscious of it. So the next part of the argument is perhaps more interesting.
He points out that, throughout history, human empathy has already extended dramatically in line with the increasingly connected societies that have been formed. So from its initial confinement to within small tribes in early hunter gatherer groups, empathy then extended along with the development of increasingly complex societies: as theological consciousness developed it came to exist throughout religious groups, and similarly as markets grew it began to extend within the boundaries of the Nation State.
Given this historical context, he argues why stop here? Is it unrealistic to strive for our empathy to extend throughout the human race, or even to all other living creatures?
So back to the fruit bats
It may still not be entirely clear why the sexual adventures of fruit bats are mentioned in the title, so I’ll now try to shed some light upon this.
Some time ago I stumbled upon what must be one of the most entertaining scientific papers in existence, ‘Fellatio by Fruit Bats Prolongs CopulationTime’ (I seriously recommend reading the abstract). I’m pretty unfamiliar with that particular branch of research, to say the least, so I couldn’t put my finger on its intended practical application. However, I think if we have any aspiration to increase our empathy and respect for other living things, it’s hugely valuable to observe in animals anything that is typically considered to be ‘human behaviour’.
Consider dogs, for example. In the UK at least, the animal receiving the largest share of human empathy must surely be dogs, but why is this? I’d conjecture that this is because we are so intimately interwoven with these creatures that we come to recognise within them a wide spectrum of emotions and behaviours that we can relate to ourselves: whether it is joy, misery, excitement or anxiety. Through this experience we perceive them to live a meaningful existence, and hence their lives become something worth respecting.
So what should we make of the discovery that fruit bats engage in a type of sexual deed that we would typically consider to be uniquely human? Is this not a delightful demonstration  of how the means and behaviours that we have developed to satisfy our own needs and desires those things that give us an appetite for life may in fact be mirrored within the lives of countless other living things, however primitive they may seem?  And if this is the case, should we not also recognise the potential capacity of other living things to suffer, and hence develop within us a universal sense of empathy?
Admittedly this would be quite a grand conclusion to draw solely from oral sex in tiny flying mammals, but of course this is not the only relevant evidence.
Selfish and selfless empathy
So the motivations to develop an Empathic Civilisation appear to be twofold. Firstly, if civilisation is to remain as extensive, and as heavily dependent upon the biosphere as it has become, it surely requires a global consciousness and respect for this system. An extension of our empathy to all other living things is perhaps the most effective way of beginning this process. And secondly, in any case, if we can recognise a capacity for joy and suffering laying within other creatures then it should be our duty to respect this, given that it so often comes at such an insignificant cost to ourselves.
So perhaps by extending our empathy throughout the biosphere we can learn to protect it, putting an end to the mass species extinction human activities are currently responsible for, and giving global civilisation a chance of survival. And then, just maybe, one day the humble fruit bat will undergo enough social development for a feminist revolution to emerge, giving future zoologists the opportunity to continue the study of these intriguing creatures and report their observations under the title ‘Cunninlingus by Fruit Bats Prolongs Copulation Time’.
I’m certainly going to try to do my small part to help keep this dream alive.
Some final pessimistic thoughts
Of course there are some issues with the idea of the Empathic Civilisation, perhaps the most obvious being the considerable gap between the formation of a globally empathic culture and its practical capability of addressing problems. After all, it’s one thing for me to feel empathy for a malnourished African child in a TV commercial, but knowing exactly what I can do to help alleviate that suffering, or perhaps more importantly, how my lifestyle may contribute to the circumstances that facilitate it, is an entirely different issue. Although in any case, the more genuine empathy I feel for the child’s situation the more determined I will be to seek out some real solutions, rather than simply offering a meagre financial donation.
But there is a more disturbing potential issue that comes to mind. What if within groups or societies be it tribes, religions, or nation states the development of this shared sense of empathy (or at least its magnitude) is dependent upon the recognition of a common ‘other’? A perceptible enemy that is required to affirm the group identity? And if this were to be true, for the Empathic Civilisation, where would this enemy lie if not on earth?


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Shemaiah Weekes said...

A very interesting post. With regards to the final point about the need for a perceptible enemy, I would point to the Buddhist ideal of extending compassion to all sentient beings. An ideal which goes beyond the dualism of 'us' and 'them' and which implies a universal compassion which transcends simple group identity.