the moving finger having writ
May 15, 2010 12:25 AM   Subscribe

Adapted from Jeremy Rifkin's talk at the RSA, the latest RSA Animate illustrates the evolution of empathy and the profound ways that it has shaped our development and our society. (Also)
posted by infini (12 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
That was fascinating. Loved the animation too; what a great resource.

It emphasized and clarified a couple of things that stood out for me in the novel I am currently reading:
It is a terrible thing to learn as a child that one is a being separate from all the world, that no one and no thing hurts along with one's burned tongues and skinned knees, that one's aches and pains are all one's own. Even more terrible, as we grow older, to learn that no person, no matter how beloved, can ever truly understand us.
'And if beauty is terror,' said Julian, 'then what is desire? We think we have many desires, but in fact we have only one. What is it?'
'To live,' said Camilla.
'To live forever,' said Bunny, chin cupped in palm.
Both Rifkin's talk and these passages are saying the same thing - that we are each of us alone and that we want to transcend space and time. The book, though, is about a murder, and the talk is about empathy. But how/why does Rifkin assume a heirarchy in which empathy is a primary impulse and selfishness (arrogance, narcissism, materialism) secondary? I feel like I missed something there...

Technology makes new things possible in extremely complicated and necessarily remote ways - it also enables measurement and segmentation to extents that seem utterly inimical to the possibility that we can escape the boxes we are put in by citizenship, religion, class, advertising, etc. I feel pretty pessimistic about technology's potential to help us transcend identities if that's not part of a greater and conscious direction we take together. There's a serious catch-22 there, IMHO. And empathy's hard to talk about, isn't it, when complex, confusing, depressing things like mortality and existential loneliness are not particularly marketable and our channels of mass communication are absolutely saturated with soundbytes about terrorism and health scares and commodity glorification. And what would be the suggested solutions? Incentivizing empathy? Making it seem cool?

This seems to be a contradiction inherent in us: even our empathic responses are necessarily and only our own - we can't really share them. Add capitalism to our cosmic solitude and we seem, well, more doomed. Did watching footage of Haiti make anyone feel connected? Did donating money do that? Empathy seems to me just an impulse like any other - I doubt it will save us.
posted by mondaygreens at 4:06 AM on May 15, 2010

Oh dear God, I had to stop after a while. This video is an egregious and ignorant representation of some work in neuroscience. Its claims about mirror neurons - what they are, how they are observed, what to make of it all - are grossly misinformed.
posted by fcummins at 5:02 AM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

fcummins, will you say more? I read the Wikipedia article on mirror neurons and it does cast a shadow on Rifkin's strident connection between mirror neurons and our 'homo empathicus' impulses, but if you know more about it, do share. Also while his / the video's depiction of the phenomenon and its observation is very simplistic, he goes on quickly to make some other points that seem to me not to rest too heavily on the neuroscience part of it.
posted by mondaygreens at 5:20 AM on May 15, 2010

For starters, mirror neurons are not observed using fMRI, but by painstaking single cell recordings. As a result, they (if they constitute a coherent class) have not been unambiguously identified in humans at all yet! There have been shed loads of speculative studies, purporting to attribute anything and everything to mirror neurons, from the origin of language and culture, to empathy, to mind reading. This reached a fever pitch about 3 years ago, and a certain degree of realism has started to creep in of late, with the realization that it is very difficult to say quite what has been found, let alone what to make of it.

The whole broohaha only makes sense at all if you buy the story that brains work as perception-cognition-action processors. Increasingly, this is seen as just one among many ways of understanding the relation between brains and the kind of mental predicate (goal, percept, emotion, empathy, etc) used in cognitive psychology. Some readings (self link to resource for a module I teach).
posted by fcummins at 5:33 AM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Because of what [science/religion/philosophy/what you did yesterday] says about human nature, our whole society should do [X]."

Don't get me wrong, I think it's a worthwhile debate and the vid was really interesting and entertaining, but I think we need to wake up and realize that any society based on The One Fundamental Fact About Human Nature is going to be drastically, problematically oversimplified.

Thanks for the links, fcummins.
posted by ropeladder at 7:25 AM on May 15, 2010

I'm skeptical of Rifkin in the same way I am skeptical of Eugenics, social Darwinism and other social theories based on biology. It's a big leap from biology to social theory and it has historically often turned out terribly (laughably) wrong. It also seems convenient he has found the biological basis for what everyone on the left has been saying since the 1960s, anti-war, love, peace, etc.. like preaching to the choir and providing justification with science in the same way Quantum physics has been co-opted by the spirituality crowd.
posted by stbalbach at 7:26 AM on May 15, 2010

I rather liked the animation and the basic concept of needing empathy, here's the Guardian review that I read on the book with the snippet that caught my eye,

Will global empathy save us from the catch-22 of climate change? John Gray is sceptical

Moving from hunting and gathering to farming, and then to industrial production, enabled humans to interact with one another as never before, but this increasing interconnection involved depleting the planet, a process that is reaching a climax just as civilisation is becoming planet-wide for the first time. "Our rush to universal empathic connectivity," Rifkin writes, "is running up against a rapidly accelerating entropic juggernaut in the form of climate change and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."

This made me think about the blue and in general, the conversations across culture, geography, language, race etc on the webz most days. Then Gray goes on to say,

The essence of any catch-22 is that there is no way out, but Rifkin shrinks from this cruel logic, with the result that his argument verges on incoherence. How could human empathy possibly defeat the force of entropy, an irreversible physical process? Does Rifkin believe an increase in altruism can lead to the repeal of the second law of thermodynamics?
For all its inordinate length, The Empathic Civilization fails to substantiate its central thesis. The innate sociability of human beings is a fact, but it does not follow that they are likely to cooperate in dealing with environmental crisis. The impact of climate change is rather to intensify human conflict. As global warming accelerates, natural resources such as arable land and water become scarcer, and competition to control them will be acute and pervasive. At the same time, those whose power and wealth come from fossil fuels will do anything they can to promote "climate scepticism".

So, I probably won't buy and read the book and I also find myself agreeing with Gray about "empathy" directly overturning "entropy" - otoh, I do know that, stepping aside from Rifkin's particular thesis, the basic idea of increasing our global consciousness, a sense of interconnected and interdependency and so, our empathy and our understanding for ourselves and those across the bits and bytes like you, is something that is inexorably happening anyway.

What its impact may be, either time will tell or we choose to take the decision. I feel that we're in a transitional stage of human history where never before have so many been connected to so many others in an instantenous immediate way (over 4 billion mobile phones alone, beat that Mickey D)
posted by infini at 8:29 AM on May 15, 2010

And empathy's hard to talk about, isn't it, when complex, confusing, depressing things like mortality and existential loneliness are not particularly marketable and our channels of mass communication are absolutely saturated with soundbytes about terrorism and health scares and commodity glorification. And what would be the suggested solutions?

Decide for yourself, and then convince others, to cut off or divert that toxic stream running into (y)our senses. A good first step is to get rid of your television.

Thanks for the link, infini
posted by Lukenlogs at 2:24 PM on May 15, 2010

Took the first step. Decided for myself the ways in which I can do what I can do, empathetically. A lot of trying, some doing.

Convince others? Um.
posted by mondaygreens at 3:01 PM on May 15, 2010

here's my contribution to attempting to solve the how do we embed "empathy" or rather wisdom in this case, into our systems and frameworks...

From Umair Haque's The Wisdom Manifesto in HBR,

Strategy is the application of force. Wisdom is the application of love. Strategy suppresses, but Wisdom evokes. Its test is the ability to spark new ideas, concepts, and solutions. That is how to be valued by people, communities, and society

and my extraction (using the creative commons license :p) of the core values of what embodies wisdom, from his writing :


Wisdom isn’t about what you “value” — it’s about how everyone values you. To get wise, articulate your essence


Wisdom happens by understanding the who, why, what, and how of suffering. That’s the only source of the most explosive kind of horsepower — not just physical or intellectual energy, but emotional and ethical energy.

High Standards

Wisdom is measured against a higher standard than mere strategy: the one set by what people, communities, and society lack.


Wisdom requires space for experimentation and play — for people to find new ways to change the world.


Strategy is the application of force. Wisdom is the application of love. Strategy suppresses, but Wisdom evokes. Its test is the ability to spark new ideas, concepts, and solutions. That is how to be valued by people, communities, and society

Uncompromising vision

Wisdom’s battle is the real one: never to compromise your essence, the way you want to change the world.

Ennoble (to elevate in degree, excellence, or respect; dignify; exalt)

Wisdom is about what’s higher. Can you hold yourself up to a higher standard than the bare minimum rule-makers ask for (profit, here and now) — and by doing so, create more value?


Wisdom is eternal. And that means that it’s a ceaseless quest for learning.
posted by infini at 3:44 PM on May 15, 2010

Well I totally loved that nicely done and charming video. Thanks for posting it infini.

I profoundly appreciate accuracy, precision and science-based thinking. Yes, there may be things to improve on in the video. However, it is transparently not a video for an academic scientist audience and I think in that light it shouldn't be judged too harshly. Ultimately, it's about encouraging a culture of empathy in which taking care of the environment is a meaningful part.

This subject of scientifically examined empathy is one that intensely interests me for a number of reasons, in particular as it pertains to the subject of pathological narcissism. My own quibble is with the term empathy being routinely used as equal to compassion or as a kind of sympathy. Empathy is defined as the capacity to imagine being in the other's shoes. But generally people think it means not only imagining the other's experience but feeling compassion as a response. The term empathic is commonly used to express feeling warmly sympathetic, which I think is inaccurate.

The ability to perceive being in the other's shoes is something pathological narcissists are capable of but the narcissist is lacking in the automatically warm, sympathetic response associated with the term empathy. Partial empathy. Continuous partial empathy. There seems to be perceptual empathy, which is a kind of partial empathy, and then there is emotionally evolved empathy, which might be called full or true empathy.

Googling a bit about some of the data in Rifkin's narrative in the animation: neuroscience department of the university in Parma where the experiment with the macaque monkey took place. In this book about the origins of discovering mirror neurons, the macaque story is about ice cream, not nuts. It says "Rizzolatti and his associates recorded specific sensory-motor activity during this mimicking behavior. Because the recorded increase in neuronal activity occurred simultaneously with the mirroring behavior, he named these cells a mirror neuron system." So it is quite possible the macaque was undergoing an MRI when this discovery was made. The MRI was not the tool used to see the mirror neurons but to detect neuronal activity.

Making some of the basic science and the value of empathy understandable in a popularly comprehensible way is, I think, an extremely relevant topic in a narcissistic society that has done, is doing, massive damage to the environment. Seeing that the USA just came out of a sort of environmental Dark Age under the presidency of George W. and will endure the impacts of an horrendous recent oil spill, the message of the video seems both meaningful and to stimulate further interest in the science of comprehending empathy.
posted by nickyskye at 7:37 PM on May 15, 2010


also sorta previously :P (the main link expired, but here's another and a bit of a critique...)
posted by kliuless at 9:12 AM on May 16, 2010

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