No Room for Compassion

bird bath

(photo from Kevin Cameron at Bastish)

I‘ve just finished reading a book that Tree gave me, called Birdology. It describes author Sy Montgomery’s experience with hens, pigeons, crows, hawks, parrots, hummingbirds and cassowaries. It’s an easy, fun read, but if you really want to know about the social life and intelligence of birds, you’d probably prefer Bernd Heinrich’s books (especially Mind of the Raven), and if you want to know more about animal emotions I’d steer you instead to Jeff Masson’s books (especially When Elephants Weep). Since I already knew that birds are very intelligent (some species more than others), and that they’re capable of complex emotions, I didn’t learn a lot from Birdology. But one idea, introduced in the first chapter (on hens) kept me reading.

That idea is that, while birds are remarkable intelligent and social, their emotional spectrum, while probably as deep as ours, is significantly different from ours. They exhibit impatience, anger, playfulness, joy, jealousy, contentedness, fear, frustration and affection, in ways any human would recognize. Some species (raptors) have an emotion that is, mercifully, relative rare in humans: It’s called yarak, and the closest human equivalent is probably blood-lust. Because they face so many risks, birds tend to be more intuitive and less reflective than humans, which makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: there just isn’t time to make most decisions thoughtfully. The instinctive ‘rage’-like quality of the yarak emotion has probably served hunting birds well. I wonder if this same instinctive emotion is what impels parents of many species (ours included) to attack predators with super-normal strength when their offspring are threatened. I think Darwin would agree.

It was another emotional difference described in the book, however, that really piqued my interest. The author charges that, while almost all species of birds can be very affectionate, many seem to be lacking in compassion. While they give their all for their offspring, and show strong bonding to both mates and community, they don’t seem to be deeply emotionally affected when one of their kind is suffering or killed. In fact, they will often turn on, and drive out, an injured member of the flock (the author speculates this is because the weak member is likely to attract predator attention and threaten the whole flock). And when they lose an offspring, their behaviour is initially intuitive, almost autonomic, but then seems largely indifferent. Given that the smarter species of birds have excellent memories, this is clearly not because the birds have forgotten their lost or killed children. What, then, accounts for this seemingly cold-blooded and ‘heartless’ behaviour?

The author does not speculate on this, but I will: My theory is that when you are a member of a ‘prey’ species, where your odds of dying young and the odds of your babies being eaten are high, compassion is too expensive an emotion to sustain. Grief is a debilitating emotion, and animals that exhibit it (elephants, whales, and humans, among others) become vulnerable to depression and incapacitation. It makes sense, then, that while compassion provides an evolutionary advantage to social animals by adding empathy and cohesion to the group, it is an evolutionary disadvantage to creatures that experience loss of loved ones regularly and at a high rate, since grief and compassion are, it appears, inseparable. So over millennia, compassion would be selected in creatures at low risk of frequent loss of loved ones, and selected out in creatures at high risk of such loss. The grief is just too much to bear, in every sense.

If this is true, it has some awesome implications. It may account for the different emotional ‘temperatures’ of dogs (canids) and cats (felines) in affluent countries, even though both types of animals are very affectionate and otherwise much like us in their emotional behaviour (cats have a much higher mortality rate). That might even account for some people being ‘dog’ people and others ‘cat’ people.

More importantly, it might explain why, when population pressures increase relative to available space and food, and result in high rates of mortality or threats to life and security, over time the species may become emotionally inured to suffering — less compassionate.

Some obvious questions stem from this:

  1. Could this account for much of the ‘inuring’ behaviour in the modern world — from street gangs to school bullies to prison populations to hazing rituals to military behaviour to the psychopathy of workers in factory farms and slaughterhouses? Are we intuitively learning to become less compassionate because, especially in these particularly vulnerable, violent environments, compassion and grief are just unbearable?
  2. We see particularly high rates of pathological insensitivity and brutality in countries (like China) that have long histories of suffering, deprivation, violence and starvation, in countries (like Congo) whose people face horrific overpopulation and ecological collapse, and in countries (like the US) whose survival depends on the ruthless oppression of other countries and whose Gini index (the gap between rich and poor) is obscenely large and obvious. Are the huge rates of crime, imprisonment, genocide, violence and mental illness in those countries a reflection of the growing suppression of our compassionate natures as our unsustainable civilization reaches its breaking point?

We are, after all, animals. Why should we remain compassionate creatures if, at some point, the disadvantage of endless and unbearable grief exceeds the advantage of the social cohesion that compassion engenders?

And if we do become, like the birds and the insects (the creatures predicted to dominate on Earth after the sixth great extinction our behaviour has precipitated occurs), still smart, and still fierce, but also devoid of compassion, what does that mean for the Long Emergency we face in the decades to come? Do the ‘Mad Max’ dystopians have it right after all?

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8 Responses to No Room for Compassion

  1. Jon Husband says:

    I think I often see what I feel are early weak-ish signals, like those you mention, of this autopoeic phenomenon (if it is truly underway).

    Thanks for putting voice to something I think about and observe.

    Unpacking it from some other influencing factors (such as television, propaganda, forced over-busyness) is tricky, but it certainly seems to me that there’s something going on along the lines of what you have articulated.

  2. Steve Bean says:

    Compassion becomes evident in humans when we find clarity of mind, potentially by questioning the untrue thoughts that come into our mind. Birds and other (non-human) animals might be different in that they’re not capable of believing untrue thoughts, such as “my offspring shouldn’t have been eaten”. (If the offspring were eaten, then they *should* have been. That’s the reality.)

    In my experience, compassion has no expense. It’s immeasurably abundant, just sometimes obscured by confusion that arises from unexamined (and believed) thoughts and the emotions that, in turn, arise from them. I’ve found, like Byron Katie (, that when I strip away the confusion by questioning my thoughts, I am love. It’s effortless.

    Still loving reality.

  3. chaitanya says:

    I think when pressure of individuality lessens, compassion grows. The more the agitation of “self”, the more defensive we become, and less responsive to suffering of others.

  4. Nathan says:

    I suppose the best way to look at the question is examine places where there is dense population and extreme poverty. There are quite a few places in south america that might fit the scenario – shanty towns outside Rio? I think there are examples of local community co-operation rather than people killing off elderly or disabled individuals who are a burden. Oddly enough, the numbing effects of modern life you talk about are perhaps more prevalent in wealthier regions. People who are poor can turn out to be quite happy.

    I don’t think there are any overall answers with humans necessarily. They can be drawn together and form resilient communities under difficult times, or behave quite abominably as well under the same conditions. At least that’s what my limited knowledge seems to tell me.

  5. Ivor Tymchak says:

    Interesting conjecture. As an aside, I was thinking about Darwin’s statement that, “Grief is a puzzler.” It seemed to me a logical solution is available.

    As higher mammals invest more time in fewer offspring, it makes sense in evolutionary terms, to make sure that the genes of the ‘caring’ parents survive. Grief, then, could be ‘pain’ to remind the parent to take better care of the next child that they have. Thus, they would be more careful to show the next child which plants are good to eat (and which are not), which areas to avoid etc. In this way, grief stricken parents become more caring and their progeny more likely to survive.

  6. Ed says:

    “Some species (raptors) have an emotion that is… called yarak”

    Bloodlust? I think not, and hope not. One must live, to be sure…

    From Persian یارکی (yârakî), “‘power, strength, ability, boldness’”)
    [Persia is home to high-grade raptoring]

    yarak (not comparable)
    1. (falconry) Superalert, hungry but not weak, and ready to hunt.

    Have you read Michael Murphy’s “In The Zone” or other studies of performance psychology? “Deep Survival” by Laurence Gonzalez? Something of aikido? Richard Strozzi Heckler? Morihei Ueshiba’s “The Art of Peace”? Of the OODA loop? Somatic psychology?

    To live and to be alive, one must be prepared to die, to put one’s self on the line. Is this overtly or overly competitive? It could seem that way, especially is mis-perceived or misused.

    None of thus speaks to killing.

    But I would want my collaborators and life mates to have and know what is taught in the above, to be mindful, super-alert, to be the best and bring the best. That is not predatory; it is protection against predation.

  7. Anna says:

    Thanks for these excellent questions. I am not beholden to the pragmatic view of biology and evolution, so they don’t strike me as conundrums. Nature may be an artistic expression rather than a machine. However they are still worthwhile questions.
    Have you considered how business and advertising promote self absorption? I am really enjoying the BBC documentaries of Adam Curtis, which show how psychology has been used to manipulate advertising and politics. The question of selfishness directly relates to libido and Thatcherism.

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