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Primates Are Us

As the holidays approach, we often remind ourselves of family time and moments of good cheer, whether celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or another sacral rite. It is a time to focus on much needed empathy.

We cherish our holidays and traditions though they continually evolve. We think of Santa Claus wearing all-red—first from Coca-Cola ads; modern Christmas tree lighting originating from pagan tree worship, Roman Saturnalia rituals, and arboreal decorations in 17th-century Germany; or the curious coincidence of the celebrated date of the birth of Jesus so close to winter solstice. And Christmas gift exchange from the offerings of the three Magi—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—now a major commercial enterprise.

Hanukkah is based upon the Maccabean Revolt (167-160 BC), when the Second Temple in Jerusalem was rededicated. As the Rabbis waited for more holy oil, they were able to light the Temple with one lamp lasting eight days—a full week more than available lamp oil allowed. Now, Hanukkah is celebrated with presents on each commemorative day, eating latkes, and playing dreidel.

These are origins of some of our most wonderful celebrations, some ancient and some “invented traditions,” as British scholars Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger explained, ever evolving.

We are social animals defining ourselves through rituals and relations to others. As an anthropologist, I try raising questions like: What makes us uniquely human? Or follow-up ones, such as how may we become more empathic to others?

Who we are has as much to do with what we inherit as it does with our social environments.

From analyzing the origins of our monotheistic religions, we know they arose in desert environments where other animals are scarce. Polytheistic religions are common where life is abundant. Our Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions developed in isolation from other non-human primates and thus also influenced our views about nature and it in relation to us.

Significant here is this interplay between the biological and the social–the exclusion of either in our analysis being a significant omission.

As the eminent cognitive anthropologist Maurice Bloch elucidates, we may think of interactive exchanges between people as the “transactional social,” in contrast to conscious and overt social symbols perpetuated by rituals and ritualistic behavior, which is the “transcendental social.” Our social life is so complex that the prefrontal cortex, the brain part responsible for controlling our sociality, most likely developed last in our evolution.

Enormous strides have been made in the neurosciences since the 1970s. Only in the last few years have we begun to understand the many and varied nuances of cognition and neurology associated with human conduct.

Some of the more interesting questions about human behavior in recent years have been raised by primatologists like Frans de Waal and Robert Sapolsky. While we are told we diverged on the evolutionary tree from other primates perhaps five million years ago, we are much like non-human primates, especially in our tendency to bond and share.

According to de Waal in his book, Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, monkeys raised in isolation of other monkeys will develop severe mental and social impairments. Likewise, humans have the same needs. This was proven by the results of Romanian orphanages under the communist Ceauşescuregime. Under Ceauşescuabortion was illegal, resulting in thousands of children being abandoned at state orphanages. By the early 1980s, the conditions in Romanian orphanages were deplorable with rampant abuse and child neglect. As de Waal describes, Romanian “…orphans were incapable of laughing or crying, spent the day rocking and clutching themselves in a fetal position…and did not even know how to play”.

Our sociality is an important part of who we are and how we develop into adulthood and how we socialize with others. On the whole, humans have an enormous capacity for empathy as well—that is, imagining others’ pain and feelings as our own.

Our empathy is so attuned as to be sometimes expressed with social altruism and not unique among animals as the late great Oxford evolutionary biologist, William Hamilton, proved quite well. Altruism here means that the benefit of the recipient of deeds outweighing the benefits of someone doing the deeds. Think about NYC firemen on 9/11 entering the World Trade Center Towers after the airplanes had collided with both buildings in order to save those who were stranded there.

Indeed, the empathy involved in feeling another’s pain is quite ingrained in human cognition, even empathy for the pain of non-human animals. Yet, being altruistic and being empathic do not necessarily have to be interrelated as altruistic impulses may be carried out for group survival and not necessarily as feeling another’s pain or preventing another’s pain.

In the animal kingdom, according to Sapolsky, consoling a victim from aggression may elicit sympathy from other group members as happens among chimpanzees, crows, dogs, elephants, ravens, and wolves.

In our neural wiring, the brain region known as the “anterior cingulate cortex,” aside from activating from real pain, according to Sapolsky, is also triggered from abstract social and emotional suffering by anxieties, revulsion, social rejection, and shame. This is also where our empathic feelings emerge for others, elaborated in Sapolsky’s recent book, Behave: the Biology of Humans at Our Best and Our Worst.

Feeling empathy is much easier among those we consider to be “in-group” people, those most familiar to us and who we identify with, and much less so for strangers. Because it is the anterior cingulate cortex which elicits empathy, its anatomical position also indicates its long evolutionary history. Empathic brain pathways also pass through the insula and amygdala, resonating with emotions from others’ facial and bodily expressions and familiar voices.

Surprisingly, as Sapolsky argues, empathy is most often also tied to “self-interest” as dopamine is released in the brain and we feel good about giving to others. Therefore, our chemical reward systems are activated when we are voluntarily giving to others and are not asked to do so.

Charles Dickens’s novella, A Christmas Carol(1843), plays upon our empathic sensibilities for the less fortunate, a morality tale of not only inherent inequalities in capitalism but also the psychological underpinnings about the unease in allowing others’ suffering.

And so, just as the main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, found redemption and was transformed into a more sympathetic person, we too might learn to become more empathic toward others, especially the less fortunate, in this holiday season but also, if we are to evolve, year-round.

As empathy is more of a natural proclivity for helping family and friends, we may try moving beyond our centers of comfort by embracing strangers in need and making the world a better place. ‘Tis the season.

More articles by:

J. P. Linstroth is a former Fulbright Scholar to Brazil. He has a PhD from the University of Oxford. He is the author of Marching Against Gender Practice (2015).

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