The Empathic Civilization

This video has been making the rounds, and aside from the very slick visual presentation, I'm not sure that it's actually telling us anything new.

It seem that the narrator is saying "People have the capacity to be empathic on a large scale, and we all benefit when they do." This is, in my opinion, true, but not groundbreaking. The example in the video is a monkey watching a human perform a similar action shows similar brain activity to when the monkey actually performs the action itself. This is experiential, learned behavior, rather than an empathic emotional reaction, and so I don't think the parallel exists. Obviously, for a 10 minute YouTube video, they've vastly simplified and condensed the science, so there could be a lot more going on that they haven't covered. Does anyone know where the science is behind this. Does it actually carry over to things like pain and pleasure? Do the pleasure centers of one person's brain activate when they see another person experience pleasure? Does it make a difference if that person is a family member, a stranger or a rival?

Another thing that is mentioned in the video is the social network response to the earthquake in Haiti. The narrator suggests that the response of the world population (by which the narrator, somewhat in opposition to his premise, seems to dismiss the majority of the the population which doesn't have ready access to the internet) is a demonstration of the capacity for altruism beyond the clans one belongs to. I'd disagree with this conclusion simply because, although Twitter and YouTube connections aren't the traditional social groupings the author mentions (blood ties, religion, nation-states) they are, in many ways a self-selected clan. I feel that most people's response was not based on a deep concern for the Haitian individuals, but a reaction to the social mores of their existing clan affiliations.

Over time, society undergoes structural changes, and for the first time in history, geography isn't a major consideration in the formation of social groups for those who have ready access to the internet. But I don't think that this indicates a major shift in how the typical human responds empathically to the world around them. Our social structures are different, but we still prioritze our resources based on what we believe is most beneficial to those people we consider to be members of the groups we belong to. As a personal example, I cannot say that I have more empathy to the people of Haiti than my ancestors might have simply because someone I consider a friend has immediate family in Haiti. My "clan" isn't necessarily larger, just less geographically homogenious.

Am I off base on this, or am I missing something fundamental in the ideas presented in this video? Or are people simply sharing this video because it looks cool, it has a message that people want to hear (or at least want people to hear them sharing), and it fulfills the societal expectation that a modern, well-educated person demonstrates empathy?

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