Since we have been looking at empathy from the biological aspect, we should expect see evidence of the development of empathy defined in terms of evolution.  In fact, it is the man linked most closely with the science of evolution, Charles Darwin, who gave us our first concise and well developed description of empathy.  Empathy, as a term, had not been coined until the early Twentieth Century; he referred to empathy in terms of morality and social affection.  The ideas he used to develop his concept of the evolution of nature find their roots before the First Century with the philosopher Aristotle who told us that humans have a natural social nature and that humans behave naturally as animals do when dealing with similar social situations.  (Arnhart) 


Some of the scholars studying Aristotle have come to recognize the importance of Aristotle's biology for all of his philosophic writing. Some of this new scholarship now suggests that for Aristotle, as Stephen Salkever has said, "ethics and politics are in a way biological sciences." And at the same time, some biologists have shown new respect for Aristotle's contributions to the history of biology."   (Arnhart)

"All of biology is a footnote to Aristotle."   John Moore


As with Andrea's observations of her child, the understanding empathy does not require the neurological knowledge provided by recent discoveries.  The philosophic approach has been accurate enough to have to only rely on modern science for confirmation.  Mapping the biological components within the human brain does not necessarily help us tackle the universally important understanding of how morality is extended from empathy.  Darwin developed these ideas through observation; that morality extends from social interaction.


"Aristotle believed that men were by nature moral creatures. Darwin demonstrated it."    Robert Richards


Darwin, in these passages form the Descent of Man, shows not only that he understood what we think of as empathy exists in nature, but that he had an empathic understanding of a nature himself.  He led the science from with his mass of individual observations to help establish in the West the beginning the enlightened thought with respect to nature that is again being advanced today by neurological research and social science.

man and the higher animals, especially the Primates, have some few instincts in common. All have the same senses, emotions, intuitions and sensations – similar passions, affections and emotions, even the more complex ones, such as jealousy, suspicion, emulation, gratitude and magnanimity...they possess the same faculties of imitation, attention, deliberation, choice, memory, imagination, the association of ideas and reason, though in very different degrees.

" .. any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man."

"There can, I think, be no doubt that a dog feels shame, as distinct from fear, and something very like modesty when begging too often for food. A great dog scorns the snarling of a little dog, and this may be called magnanimity."

"In the Zoological Gardens, a monkey, which had weak teeth, used to break open nuts with a stone; and I was assured by the keepers hat after using the stone, he hid it in the straw, and would not let any other monkey touch it. Here, then, we have the idea of property; but this idea is common to every dog with a bone, and to most or all birds with their nests."
   Darwin: The Descent of Man (1871)


Darwin stood on the "shoulders of giants," as scientists say.  Closer to Darwin's time than Aristotle were Mackintosh, Brodie, and Yoautt:


"human beings are endowed by nature with a moral sense that approves certain actions without regard to their consequences, although the essential tendency of such actions is to promote the common advantage or general happiness."  Mackintosh: Progress of Ethical Philosophy (1836)

The mental principle in animals is of the same essence as that of human beings; so that even in the humblest classes [i.e., species] we may trace the rudiments of these faculties to which, in their state of more complete development, we are indebted for the grandest results of human genius. I am inclined to believe that  the minds of the inferior animals are essentially of the same nature with that of the human race.”  Sir James Brodie, President of the Royal Society (1859)


"animals possess senses, emotions, consciousness, attention, memory, sagacity, docility, association of ideas, imagination, reason, instinct, the moral qualities, friendship and loyalty – each of which is acknowledged to exist in other species and to differ from human attributes only by degree."  Yoautt (1839)


Darwin, as a family man, was very kind and patient with his children.  Possibly he had been influenced by his observations of the natural way animals treated their young:


"Our father and mother would not even wish to know what we were doing or thinking unless we wished to tell."   "He cared for all our pursuits and interests, and lived our lives with us in a way that very few fathers do ... He always put his whole mind into answering any of our questions."   (Keynes)


Meanings of empathy, and of evolution

De Waal does ground-breaking research with elephants to provide a social, more real, layer to the knowledge being developed by neurological science.  He thinks along the lines that Darwin did and creates for us anecdotes to help us understand the meaning of empathy in nature:


"As in a Russian doll, however, the outer layers always contain an inner core. Instead of evolution having replaced simpler forms of empathy with more advanced ones, the latter are merely elaborations on the former and remain dependent on them. This also means that empathy comes naturally to us. It is not something we only learn later in life, or that is culturally constructed."  (de Waal, from Peacecenter)


De Waal's metaphor shows the link between evolution and developmental growth.  Just as the child develops natural empathy into complex moral reasoning, empathy itself developed in nature from simpler, more emotional concepts, into the complex social beings of humans, higher primates, and, now we know, whales.  Arnhart explains that the importance of empathy comes to us from nature through evolution, and he develops the ideas of empathy in evolution in ways that can be applied to political science and individual rights.


"Evolution has produced the requisites for morality: a tendency to develop social norms and enforce them, the capacities of empathy and sympathy, mutual aid and a sense of fairness, the mechanisms of conflict resolution, and so on. Evolution has also produced the unalterable needs and desires of our species: the need of the young for care, a desire for high status, the need to belong to a group, and so forth." (Arnhart)


Different meanings, and levels, of empathy: Compassion
Empathy, if we think about it, is easy to understand as we all experience it, but difficult to explain.  Or more accurately, the definition of empathy is difficult to pin down to a common definition as everybody seems to have a unique perspective of it.  It is very likely then that empathy affects people in different ways, and that the manifestations of empathy are as different people who express it.  As people act on their unique perspectives of empathy, empathy may develop even greater, more different, meanings.

Therapists rely on empathy to make a connection with their clients so that they can get a deeper understanding for a client's problems and understand how that client can affect positive change.  They are concerned that their own feelings are focused on benefiting the client and are not self-centered, so they define empathy more as how the feelings and experiences of others are perceived by them, as opposed to sympathy, which more closely relates to their own feelings.


"During empathy one is simply 'there for' the other individual, when experiencing their own feelings while listening to the other, i.e. during sympathy, the listener pays attention to something about themselves, and is not 'there for' the client."   "Consider how you would feel if you sensed that the individual listening to you was getting into their own 'stuff' rather than hearing and reflecting exactly what you were feeling in a moment of need?"  (Caruso)

"In empathy one substitutes oneself for the other person; in sympathy one substitutes others for oneself.  The object of empathy is understanding. The object of sympathy is the other person's well-being. In sum, empathy is a way of knowing; sympathy is a way of relating."   (Wispe)


"Empathy as a complex emotion is different. It requires awareness of the other person’s feelings and of one’s own reactions. The appropriate reaction may not be to cry when another person cries, but to reassure them, or even to leave them alone."   (Preston, de Waal)



Evolution of the definition of empathy

Laura Zebuhr is a teacher in Minnesota who understands empathy in literature, and admires Aziz Nafzir.  She uses her cultural knowledge of to show us the evolution of the empathic concept historically embedded in the Arabic language, and therefore its culture.  We see a deeper understanding of empathy that predates both the modern definition of it and also Darwin's ideas:


“Arabic employs a system of root words, where several hundred words can be related back to the root meaning. Sympathy in Arabic comes from the root word عطف. It has many meanings but the most common are to bend, to incline, be favorably disposed to, have or feel compassion, awaken affection towards, or close to ones heart. Empathy can be traced back to three root words. The first is عطف, demonstrating again that one cannot feel empathy without feeling sympathy also. The second is عنق, meaning attach closely, embrace, hug, or associate closely. The third root is قمص, meaning to put on a shirt, clothe, wrap in, pass into another body (spirit), or materialize in another body. The third meaning is closest to that of understanding.  This implies that a person cannot fully experience another person or object unless they can place themselves into the other person or object and fully understand what it is like to be that person or object.”    (Zebuhr)