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date: 12 July 2020

(p. xxi) Preface

(p. xxi) Preface

Many have misunderstood Charles Darwin’s view of natural selection in On the Origin of Species as a justification for the necessity of aggressive or ruthless behavior to survive. This view of natural selection as the survival of the fittest was based on social Darwinist Herbert Spencer’s interpretation of Darwin’s theories to justify class and race superiority. Alfred Lord Tennyson supported this description of Nature “red in tooth and claw” in his classic poem “In Memoriam,” in 1850. It was further popularized by Thomas Aldous Huxley, often called “Darwin’s bulldog,” who wrote a number of essays defending this gladiatorial view of natural selection.

It is interesting to note, though, that Russian anarchist Petr Kropotkin published a rebuttal to both Spencer and Huxley in his book, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, stating, “If we … ask Nature: ‘who are the fittest: those who are continually at war with each other, or those who support one another?’ we at once see that those animals which acquire habits of mutual aid are undoubtedly the fittest.” In Darwin’s later-published Descent of Man, in 1871, he wrote, “Those communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.” Darwin further states, “We are impelled to relieve the sufferings of another, in order that our painful feelings maybe at the same time relieved.” Even earlier, Immanuel Kant stated, “It is a duty not to … avoid the pain of compassion, which one may not be able to resist. For this feeling, though painful, nevertheless is one of the impulses placed in us by nature effecting what the representation of duty might not accomplish by itself.”

Over the last three decades, the ever-growing interest in brain science has intersected with a similar growing interest in the motivations that allow a species to survive. What has become evident, and what Kant, Darwin, and Kropotin allude to, is that compassion, characterized by nurturing and caring behavior, is critical to the long-term survival of many species and, most importantly perhaps, to the human species. While empathy researchers like Daniel Batson (see Chapter 3) and Mark Davis (Chapter 23) spearheaded research in this general area, a more pointed interest in compassion per se seemingly began as a result of a conversation in 1992 between neuroscientist Richard Davidson and the Dalai Lama in which His Holiness expressed his belief that meditation allowed one to increase one’s capacity for compassion. The first studies began simply as an attempt to understand how meditation affects the brain. Over time, it was evident that such practices had the potential to promote what is at the center of Buddhist philosophy and that of most of the world’s religions: the cultivation of compassion. The science has further evidenced that such cultivation can have profound positive effects on one’s physiology. These initial explorations have led to an exponential growth in empirical research on both meditation and compassion. A new field of research has emerged from these studies: contemplative neuroscience.

This first Handbook of Compassion Science brings together, for the first time in the form of an academic handbook, leading researchers in the field of compassion science. The Handbook’s scientists and other scholars explore what the motivators of compassion (p. xxii) are, how compassionate behavior affects one’s physiology, and how can compassion be cultivated.

Having grown up in poverty with a family life severely impacted by addiction, neglect, and mental illness, for this author, the puzzle of compassion is particularly personal. The roadmap that enabled my own growth and success fundamentally results from the compassion of others, mentors, friends, and colleagues. Additionally, as a physician, I have personally experienced the profound effect that compassionate care can have on the healing process. How is it, then, that our tendency toward compassion overcomes our instincts for self-preservation?

The more I reflect on this puzzle, the less of a paradox it seems, because, as biology tells us, compassion and its related systems of nurturing and maternal behavior completely align with the organism’s interest in self-preservation. As our biology expanded to encompass more sophisticated social interactions, it evolved to reward them through the release of hormones and neurotransmitters and other positive neurological and physiological systems (see chapters by Brown and Brown, Klimecki and Singer, Porges, Carter and Rodrigues). Presumably, these reward contingencies evolved precisely because positive social interactions benefit us evolutionarily.

Covering multiple levels of our lives and self-concept, from the individual, to the group, to the organization and culture, this volume gathers evidence and models of compassion that treat the subject of compassion science with careful scientific scrutiny and concern. In this sense, this volume comprises one of the first multidisciplinary and systematic approaches to examining compassion from multiple perspectives and frames of reference.

An effort such as this is not merely important for an academic field, it seems of increasing concern in the modern world. Given the conflict of culture in the modern world, can understanding the cultural levers of compassion, as Koopman-Holm and Tsai (Chapter 21) or Chiao (Chapter 12) discuss, offer potential recourse? Can our schools, as Lavelle et al. (Chapter 33) discuss, caregiving as Figley and Figley (Chapter 28) of Shea and Lionis (Chapter 32) describe and understanding of development as Spinrad and Eisenberg offer (Chapter 5) help us forge more compassionate social institutions and care-giving practices? Can we physically or cognitively construct our daily, everyday contexts to help us expand our concern for others as Cameron (Chapter 20), Condon and DeSteno (Chapter 22), or Weisz and Zaki (Chapter 16) describe? Finally, as Skwara, King and Saron (Chapter 17) and Goldin and Jazaieri (Chapter 18) discuss, can we find ways to directly cultivate compassion through direct meditation or cultivation exercises as a stable component of our lives?

What these facets of compassion all have in common is that they may contain answers to the critical puzzle about the proverbial conflict between compassion and self-preservation. In a world characterized by ongoing warfare, this understanding is more important than ever. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, “Compassion is no longer a luxury, but a necessity if our species is to survive.”