by Dr. Michael W. Fox
The Evolution of Empathy
In ancient Indian Hindu Vedic scriptures, there is the observation that life in a rock is life that sleeps; life in a plant is life that feels; life in an animal is life that knows, and life in human form is life that knows that it knows.
Animals have self-awareness through feeling and so possess self-consciousness to varying degrees according to the combined effects of social and neuronal complexity. This complexity becomes such that the human species, perhaps more so than most other animal species, has a reflexive consciousness in that awareness of the personal self is seen within an ever-widening comprehension of its relationship with the Great or Universal Self. Our empathic and empirical knowledge of the nature of sacredness and the sacredness of Nature increase accordingly. As the individuated self evolves along the continuum of increasing complexity/ consciousness, it becomes reflexive and thus increasingly aware of its ontology in relation to the Universal self: of being within Being.
The human species is at the stage of realizing the fruits of instrumental knowledge and its increasing power of dominion over the Earths living processes. It is also learning that this power and knowledge must be balanced by an ethics of empathy and by the wisdom gained not through domination and 'mastery,' but by way of invocation of Natures powers of divine conception and manifestation. Otherwise we will continue to cause great harm to life. This balance reconciles the dualities and tensions between matter and spirit, self and other, culture and Nature.
As reflexive, more self-aware beings, we are able to understand that all beings are connected, interdependently co-evolved and co-dependent. This is because the body is as much in the Spirit as the spirit is in the Body. If we wish to care for our bodies and be well, we must first see to the Spirit; and if we wish the Spirit to be well, we must care for the Earth and all who dwell therein.
As reflexive beings we are beginning to see how we harm ourselves when we harm others and the Earth. Equalitarianism - giving all beings equally fair consideration - is therefore enlightened altruism. Biology instructs us in many ways, by revealing the consequences of life out of balance - what the Hopi Indians call Koyanaskatsi -- as distinct from life in balance called Lomakatsi. This is living with equipoise and egalitarian equalitarianism. The wisdom of Lomakatsi is the Tao of Taoism, the middle way of Buddhism, the way of active compassion and of obedience to the Golden Rule.
Better that we seek such balance and define what it means to be human in order to avert the intensified devastation of the Earth's biosystems and of the life communitys biological and cultural diversity. So it has been from age to age, from the deforestation of the age of pyrotechnology to the pollution of the petrochemical, nuclear and genetic engineering ages.
Now in this last transition into the second millennium AD, we have experienced the radicalism of the 60's and the 70's, the narcissim and economism of the 80's and the 90's, and now the nihilism of the new millennium, as corporate imperialism and religious fundamentalism supplant nationalism and bioregionalism. The organic economy and ecology of the planet are becoming increasingly dysfunctional, along with the physical and mental health of our children, and the well-being of all other terrestrial and aquatic life forms and biosystems.
Biology reveals to us the consequences of a parasitic existence as Homo sapiens comes to rely increasingly on information technology to further exploit Earth's life and natural resources through chemical and genetic engineering technologies. This increasingly parasitic existence is one of intensified exploitation and intoxification- poisoning and polluting of the biosphere and life processes, including our food, air, water and genetic, immunological and neurological (cognitive and affective) systems.
The increasingly parasitic and degenerate the human condition becomes, the more complex its technology industry (including health care), laws and commerce become as they expand on a global scale. With increasing complexity, there is increasing dysfunction and systemic corruption and disruption, necessitating more oversight, regulatory controls, new laws, and litigation. We fabricate ever more synthetic materials and life forms, and replace biodiversity and cultural diversity with the industrialized monocultures sanctified by consumerism and economism. A disconnected and disoriented populace regards as progressive and normative the virtual realities of theme parks and computerized, customized entertainment and information networks, and go in family and school groups to visit virtual zoos with cloned and otherwise artificially propagated endangered species. Even our companion animals and our own children may soon be cloned for spare organ parts to maintain the original in an increasingly toxic environment, and for other selfish and pecuniary reasons deemed good and necessary by the scientific priesthood.
This priesthood is the advocate and source of 'sound science' policies that are used to validate the need to create ever more hazardous technologies and synthetic materials (especially from petroleum), and even to approving and regulating the engineering of and release into the world, new life forms for uses ranging from war and food, to medicine, mining and forestry.
The priesthood of the industrial technocracy, that holds that science is truth, uses 'sound science' (scientism) to counter and discredit public concern, medical evidence and objective determination of the risks to human and planetary health of agrochemical poisons and industrial chemicals like the organochlorines 1, dioxins and PCB's that contaminate our food, water, bodies and minds and are even destroying the atmosphere (the ozone hole is caused by chlorofluorocarbons).
A predominantly instrumental and objective (objectifying) relationship with Nature has transformed the expression and imprint of humanity on Earth in ways and consequences more harmful than good to both ourselves and to the rest of the Earth community. Hence the urgent need for more empathic knowledge through feeling for others, especially in our relationship with other animals.
Feeling for Animals: The Empathosphere
In many ways, nonhuman animals are more empathically connected and aware than humans. As we become ever more deeply connected through empirical and empathic knowledge and associated feeling, we enter the empathosphere, or realm of fellow-feeling and understanding. In this realm our consciousness becomes reflexive, conscience and consciousness are born and we become a more caring, whole and healthy species, culture, community, family and person. Without empathy there can be no coherent ethical basis for society, and no moral consistency in our lives and in our relationships within the broader life community of the planetary ecosystem.
In my book The Boundless Circle where I first outlined my initial understanding of the empathosphere, I linked it with the boundless ethic of compassion. This boundlessness is evident in the invisible ripple-effect of good works or some new idea spreading from community to community. Two animals demonstrated the boundless nature of the empathosphere at India Project for Animals and Natures (IPAN) Animal Refuge in the Nilgiris, South India. Somehow they knew that the Refuge was a place of security and relief from suffering. How else to explain these two animals coming several miles to where they had never been before? One was a dog who dragged himself after being hit by a vehicle for over a mile to the Refuge with a broken back and with his testicles hanging out. Another was a water buffalo whom staff found one morning waiting at the Refuge gate. Her condition was quickly recognized and treated- an infected vagina seething with flesh-eating maggots.
These and other remarkable instances of animal empathy and understanding at IPAN's Hill View Farm Animal Refuge have confirmed for me the reality, complexity and beauty of the empathosphere. Scientist Rupert Sheldrake has empirical evidence of the existence of the empathosphere, which he calls a morphic field. Animals' resonance with this field enables them, for example, to know when their owners are coming home. Within this realm of being and feeling is awareness that all things are connected. This means that when we humans harm another sentient being, the harm may not be limited to that one being. There is a ripple-effect and others feel and know, just like the ripple-effect of loving concern and compassion in action at IPAN's Refuge that injured and sick animals, through remote or distance-sensing, are able to feel and so find their way to the Refuge for treatment.
The ripple-effects following the harpooning of whales, and the incarceration and suffering of animals in factory farms and research laboratories, may be far more pervasive and no less real than the anguish caring people feel for all creatures who are treated inhumanely and unjustly by those who are disconnected in heart and mind from others' suffering and joy; and from the sanctity of being.
The empathy-based, and also bioscience-based ethics that I have proposed in my book Bringing Life to Ethics will become personally relevant when we realize that when we harm the Earth and other living beings, we also harm ourselves.
But as we enter the empathosphere we must not go unprepared. We need an ethical compass, and the courage of the spiritual warrior to take on others' suffering and go beyond success and failure, and blind faith and vain hope, and by living responsibly through right livelihood and active compassion.
Active compassion in loving service is the greatest power on Earth that the human can bring to facilitate healing, relief from suffering and other co-creative, self-actualizing processes. For me I find the greatest joy through compassion in action. I find more personal fulfillment in alleviating a dogs unimaginable suffering by removing stinking, squirming maggots from an infested ear, than a good review of my latest book or a standing ovation after a public lecture.
I feel blessed indeed by the opportunity to be able to help other animals in need. Seeing the look of terror and despair in a dogs eyes melt into trust and gratitude after days of treatment by our devoted staff at IPAN's Hill View Farm Animal Refuge, is the greatest reward.
Seeing our resident animals interacting with others in recovery and showing care and concern, gentleness and understanding, provides me with a deeper appreciation of animal awareness and sensitivity. Then to see them play, some for the first time; for the first time not starving, or in pain, or afraid and thus being free to express and experience the joy of being. To see their spirits gain free expression and their personalities blossom in the safe and loving environment of the Refuge borders on the miraculous. The nexus of relationships between IPAN's devoted local Indian staff and different resident species- donkeys, horses, ponies, sheep, goats, water buffalo, cattle, calves, dogs and monkeys is the most vivid example of the empathosphere that I have ever experienced. Indeed visitors have remarked that the Refuge and the animals are illumed by a clearly evident light. I am also not alone in seeing this light fade briefly after a resident animal had died. This was not, I believe, simply a transfer of sadness from our staff to the other animals. I could see and feel something in the ambience of the Refuge as well as in the subdued behavior of many of the resident animals.
As we become more mindful of the consequences of how we regard and treat other animals, the power of loving concern through compassionate action will be the catalyst for our evolution and transformation into a truly humane species, for the good of all.
Empathy brings the light of human compassion into the world that is part of that ineffable light that is transfiguring, transforming, and transcending.
Our greatest survival and evolution challenge is in the will of my own kind to take the necessary steps to set limits on how much harm we cause to the Light of this living Earth, and to other living beings in the process of satisfying our own multiplying needs, wants and insatiable appetites. I am disillusioned by those individuals and governmental and non-governmental organizations whose mandates to protect animals, the environment and the right of indigenous peoples have become secondary to political, financial and other vested interests. What is called for is the kind of spiritual anarchy of a nascent civil society that is the antidote to those corrupt human forces that seek to rule the world, and to the governmental and non-governmental organizations that help protect the status quo of animal and human exploitation and oppression, and planetary devastation. If we do not collectively change and evolve into a more empathic species, we will become a degenerate parasitic planetary infestation and suffer the consequences of Nature's Nemesis.
But there is hope so long as we listen to the Earth, to our hearts, and experience how our souls are illumined from within "at the meeting place of Heaven and Earth" as Ralph Blum puts it. Or as I experience it when people show loving kindness toward each other and all living beings, and illumine the world with their enthusiasm, devotion, and gentle joy.
--Joe Thornton (2001) Pandora's Poison: Chlorine, and a New Environmental Strategy. Boston, MA: MIT Press
--M. W. Fox (1997) The Boundless Circle: Caring for Creatures and Creation. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books
--Rupert Sheldrake (1999) Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home and Other Unexplained Powers of Animals. New York: Crown Books
--M. W. Fox (2000) Bringing Life to Ethics: Global Bioethics for a Humane Society. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press
--R. Blum (1982) The Book of Runes. New York: St. Martins Press. p. 84