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We Contain Multitudes: Walt Whitman, Charles Darwin, and the Song of Empathy

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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In the struggle for existence how do we herald the better angels of our nature?

"Speech" by Nathaniel Gold

"Speech" by Nathaniel Gold

Author’s Note: On Tuesday I will be traveling to Manchester, England for the International Conference for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine where I’ll be giving my talk entitled “A Historical Epistemology of Empathy from Darwin to De Waal.” In the lead up to my journey across the pond the iCHSTM organizers offered me the opportunity to publish a shortened version of my talk on the conference blog where I have cross-posted that which follows.

Dark portents of civil war were looming as the American poet Walt Whitman celebrated the transformative song of empathy. “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels,” he wrote in his 1855 book Leaves of Grass, “I myself become the wounded person.” The ensuing battle over slavery, an institution that Charles Darwin called “the greatest curse on Earth,” would seem an unlikely place to find hope in human potential. And yet, as Whitman wrote during his volunteer service with wounded Union soldiers, “I’ll pour the verse with streams of blood, full of volition, full of joy.”

Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in the United States one year prior to the first fateful shots at Fort Sumter that began the bloodiest conflict on American soil. With few exceptions, naturalists in the United States greeted the theory of natural selection the same way that celebrated paleontologist Louis Agassiz did, as “a scientific mistake, untrue in its facts, unscientific in its method, and mischievous in its tendency.” What was worse, critics claimed that Darwin’s theory divided moral sentiments from divinity and pitted science against humanity. And yet, for Walt Whitman, the advent of Darwinism meant that “the world of erudition, both moral and physical, cannot but be eventually better’d and broaden’d in its speculations.” Whitman’s vision of empathy was one that embraced a Darwinian nature.

However, modern scholars in science studies view the concept of empathy in disarray. They cite how its recent coinage in the early 20th century from the German term Einfühlung (“feeling into”) and the varied and subjective interpretations with which it was initially used in psychoanalytic theory “offer no one definitive account of empathy, nor a reduction of one kind of empathy experience into another,” summarizes Susan Lanzoni in the introductory essay to a special issue of Science in Context devoted to the topic. However, following Whitman, I would argue that a Darwinian understanding of empathy has been entirely consistent and built from Darwin’s initial hypothesis to establish an empirical framework by the mid-1960s. Ironically, given the initial reception Darwin received in America, the primary work in this area was conducted by scientists in the United States itself.

It may initially seem to be a problem that Darwin used the earlier term sympathy to describe the evolutionary foundations of moral behavior. However, there can be little doubt as to what he meant. Citing Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, Darwin wrote in Descent of Man:

[T]he basis of sympathy lies in our strong retentiveness of former states of pain or pleasure. Hence, “the sight of another person enduring hunger, cold, fatigue, revives in us some recollection of these states, which are painful even in idea.” We are thus impelled to relieve the sufferings of another, in order that our own painful feelings may be at the same time relieved.

Representative pictures from four stimulus categories used for communication-of-affect tests. From Miller et al. (1959).

Darwin continued in Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by stating that, “from the power of the imagination and of sympathy we put ourselves in the position of the sufferer.” It is clear that in his use of the word sympathy he was referring to an individual “feeling into” the emotional state–or taking the perspective of–another individual as was meant by the German word Einfühlung. In fact, many of the early German theorists of Einfühlung cited Darwin in their own work on the subject, including Robert Vischer who is regarded as the philosopher who first developed the concept.

Darwin went on to propose two hypotheses to support this theory of empathic perspective-taking: 1) individuals would be expected to mimic the behaviors of another when observing them perform a difficult task and 2) they would be physically distressed when witnessing another individual’s pain and would seek to stop it. It would take nearly a century for these hypotheses to be tested, but once they were it placed the scientific study of empathy on a new foundation.

Chimp mimicry from Köhler (1927, Plate IV). Sultan watching Grande reach for bananas. "Note Sultan's sympathetic left hand."

While the psychoanalytic explorations of empathy took a variety of directions, laboratory experiments with primates offered the empirical grounding necessary for a precise definition. In 1927 the German psychologist Wolfgang Köhler, who repeatedly criticized the Einfühlung theory for its vagueness and lack of factual evidence, demonstrated motor mimicry in chimpanzees by having one individual climb on top of piled crates in order to reach a hanging banana as a second chimp observed from below. Köhler documented how the observer frequently stretched out their own arm as the climber reached for the prize, a clear example of mimicry suggesting that they were taking the perspective of the other as Darwin hypothesized.

But the coup de grâce arrived with a series of papers published in the United States between 1959 and 1963. Psychologist Robert E. Miller and colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh sought to test Darwin’s prediction that expressions of fear in animals had evolved as communicative signals for other members of their group. By first training a monkey to press a bar in order to prevent a mild electric shock, the researchers went on to demonstrate that the expression of fear by a second monkey that received a shock in an adjoining cage activated an identical reaction in the first, motivating them to press the bar even though they felt no shock themselves. This reaction was the same even when the expression was seen on a silent television monitor or in the form of a still photograph. As the researchers predicted, the monkeys’ “empathic relationship [was] dependent upon some nonverbal communication of affects.”

Finally, in 1964, psychiatrists Jules Masserman and Stanley Wechkin of the North Western University Medical School in Chicago employed a similar approach but added the additional element of an “altruistic” choice. After training monkeys to associate bar pressing with causing a shock to be administered in the adjoining cage, the researchers offered the first monkey a food reward if they would intentionally administer a shock to the second. Few accepted this devil’s bargain. The researchers discovered that the majority of monkeys, even those who were strangers to one another, “will consistently suffer hunger rather than secure food at the expense of electroshock to a conspecific.” When offered the opportunity to celebrate themselves, our primate cousins chose to sing a different tune.

But while the science of empathy revealed a path towards reconciliation between the empirical research of the mid-twentieth century with the predictions from the nineteenth, the wounds inflicted during the American Civil War–or what some still call the “War of Northern Aggression”–remain slow to heal. However, in the example of Walt Whitman we find someone who rejected such binary opposites, whether between North versus South, science versus art, and even the love of man versus woman. He reminds us that to celebrate others is to celebrate ourselves, even during our darkest hour. In 1892, while bedridden from a paralytic stroke and barely able to hold a pen to paper, this great “poet of science” offered a final paean to his early inspiration in a work entitled Darwinism—(then Furthermore). “Meantime, the highest and subtlest and broadest truths of modern science wait for their true assignment and last vivid flashes of light—as Democracy waits for its.”

Eric Michael Johnson About the Author: Eric Michael Johnson has a Master's degree in Evolutionary Anthropology focusing on great ape behavioral ecology. He is currently a doctoral student in the history of science at University of British Columbia looking at the interplay between evolutionary biology and politics.

Follow his work on Facebook and Google+. Follow on Twitter @primatediaries.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Jay Mandeville 2:40 am 07/21/2013

    Excellent article, & I’m convinced that empathy is a perfectly natural human trait. But did Whitman, in the quote at the very end, actually use an apostrophe in “it’s” when the meaning requires “its”, or is that a typo? ;-)

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  2. 2. EricMJohnson 4:15 am 07/21/2013

    Thank you, I’m glad you liked it. The apostrophe was included in the source I looked at, but at your prompting I went looking for another. According to a book version published in 1902 the line is as you said. Thanks for pointing that out!

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  3. 3. theo52 10:13 pm 07/21/2013

    This article presuposes that Darwinian/Macro evolution is a scientific fact – but is really?

    Has anyone observed one kind of animal changing into another kind?

    Dr John Sanford (Geneticist and inventor of the GeneGun) said :
    “The bottom line is that the primary axiom [of Darwinian/Macro evolution] is categorically false,
    you can’t create information with misspellings, not even if you use natural selection.”

    Dr Ben Carson; Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at one of the world’s greatest hospitals (Johns Hopkins), a groundbreaking surgeon, best-selling author, and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom said”
    “I think one of the most damning pieces of evidence against evolution is the human genome.
    You can see that you have very complex, sophisticated coding mechanisms for different amino acids, and various sequences that give you millions of different genetic instructions — very much like computer programming, which uses a series of zeros and ones in different sequences, but gives you very specific information about what that computer is to do.”

    Link to this
  4. 4. David Cummings 6:04 am 07/23/2013

    Link to this
  5. 5. EricMJohnson 12:28 pm 07/23/2013

    I second the link by David Cummings.

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  6. 6. chris_weiss 12:33 pm 07/23/2013

    Theo -> How many times are you going to keep reposting the same discredited sources? Sanford’s contention that the genome is degenerating across all species is demonstrably false, and Ben Carson is a brilliant surgeon who knows nothing about evolution and has allowed his fundamentalist Christian views overshadow his past achievements.

    In contrast to Carson, it is actually DNA and the human genome which provided absolutely critical confirmatory evidence for evolution. For example, it explained common descent, atavisms, etc. Evolution predicts we should see genes in common, great variety in DNA, and multiple ways for the same phenotype to develop in the genotype…. Ta Da! These predictions are true.

    Please stop pretending you care about science. Your Young Earth Creationist spam is very tiresome and very well known.

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  7. 7. theo52 5:51 am 07/25/2013

    Has anyone actually carefully scrutinized the Berkeley evolution website? I have

    I have gone through it with a fine tooth comb and gues what I discovered?
    - It is sheer bluff and poor science.
    - It is like an insurance policy. The big print makes all manner of claims but when you scrutinize the fine print you are disgusted that it does not deliver.

    I actually pasted the content from the website and followed all the rabbit trails and then I looked for the actual obserbable scientific evidence supporting Darwinian/Macro evolution. There was NONE.
    The usual dribble about homology, fossils,DNA etc which is not really evidence but rather INTERPRETATION of the evidence.
    The fossil record condemns Darwinian/Macro evolution.
    DNA condemns Darwinian/Macro evolution. DNA is a 4GB code which is mindblowing complex – how could possibly have “evolved”. It evolves only in the IMAGINATION of evolutionists.
    I agree with Malcom Muggeridge, Pascal Lectures, Ontario Canada, University of Waterloo who said:
    “I, myself, am convinced that the theory of evolution, especially to the extent to which it’s been applied, will be one of the great jokes in the history books of the future. Posterity will marvel that so flimsy and dubious an hypothesis could be accepted with the credulity that it has.”

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  8. 8. chris_weiss 10:19 am 07/25/2013

    Theo -> you are no more qualified to pass your judgments on evolution than a plumber is to comment on heart surgery. Your copy and paste comments, your superficial arguments about the “interpretation” of the evidence, etc, are just foils to hide your real position, which is the absurdly and immediately disprovable position of literal creationism, or young earth creationism. You are are a devotee of Ken Ham, Ray Comfort, and Kent Hovind.

    Mutation is a fact, genetic variation through recombination and sexual reproduction is a fact, and variation in the genome is observed constantly. When a species like the cockroach changes its diet to avoid sweets, which are used in most roach bait, this is not simple variation – this is natural selection at work.

    I suggest you review the work by NYU on self-replicating molecules to see how it is possible for molecules like DNA could emerge and replicate.

    Also, your concept of information theory is equally flawed. There is no direct translation of molecules to bits. This is a common fallacy by creationists.

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  9. 9. theo52 5:31 pm 07/25/2013

    Dearest Chris
    Slander me all you want.
    Call me anything you want.
    The truth is that the scientific evidence supporting Darwinian/macro evolution is pathetic.

    Teaching it to students as a scientific “fact” is nothing short of a disgusting deception.

    BRUCE SIMAT, Ph.D., expressed his frustration that Evolution is shielded from scrutiny when he said:
    “all things should be available for challenging. That has been part of my anger with science is that nothing is sacred is the norm for all other disciplines except evolution and all of a sudden it becomes the sacred cow.”

    Link to this
  10. 10. Amy Luna 6:18 pm 07/29/2013

    Great article, but I find there is a glaring omission, so I feel compelled to point out that the largest revolution for inclusion of human rights ever in the history of the world was when the U.S. suffrage movement for women intentionally and strategically decided to elicit empathy from fathers to their daughters in order to achieve their goals. One half of the population got the other half to voluntarily share resources and not one single shot was fired. The leadership of the movement made the conscious decision to appeal to men’s better natures and empathy and not to use violence to achieve their goals (this is documented), even though it took over seventy years and the movement’s founders, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, both died before seeing their lifelong goal of women’s enfranchisement, which both devoted decades of their lives to, as well as countless other women (and men!). In addition to quoting Darwin and Whitman, how about citing Stanton and Anthony who actually walked the walk of empathy and peace in the face of often violent opposition, and proved that evoking empathy is a viable strategy for attaining resources, if one practices the disciplines of patience and indefatigable courage? As Anthony said before she died, “Failure is impossible.” You could also add Mandela, Gandhi and MLK to the list, who followed these illustrious ladies.

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  11. 11. Arthurian 5:41 pm 04/2/2014

    Theo: You may be right about some things, but not all. Evolution is change over time. Find me one fundamental Christian Bible-literalist who believes there are still 2 people on the planet. All tapped out already?

    Everyone ‘believes’ in evolution, because it is true. The only dispute is over how much can it do? Can it accomplish all of life from a single cell?

    This is where science exits, and philosophy enters. Science is observable data. Philosophy is based UPON observable data, then extrapolated.

    It isn’t that evolution isn’t all there is, it is that almost all of alleged ‘evolution’ falls into the category of philosophy, while purporting to be science.

    Empathy exists in other animals, but it doesn’t really teach us anything about ourselves. This is the greatest mistake in all of evolution: Believing that ‘the present’ can show us ‘the past’ – of another life form – based on observations in THE PRESENT.

    The fatal flaw in this logic is that things vary in degrees of evolution. This is entirely false.

    Every single living species is the result of the same evolutionary process as another living species. A worm and a human are just as evolved as one another.

    Show me a scientist who disagrees with this, and I will show you a scientist who doesn’t understand evolution.

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