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After Sandy: The Most Highly Evolved Compassion Of All

Blaine Badick walks through floodwaters with her dogs in Hoboken, N.J., on Wednesday.
Brendan Smialowski
AFP/Getty Images
Blaine Badick walks through floodwaters with her dogs in Hoboken, N.J., on Wednesday.

Like millions of others, I've been heartsick this week at the loss of life and destruction caused by Superstorm Sandy, especially along the Jersey Shore near where I grew up. Among the few bright spots have been the selfless acts of rescuers. To the police, firefighters, Coast Guard, nurses and doctors who deservedly earn our gratitude, I'd like to add animal rescuers: people who are rushing this week, as they did after Katrina, to aid animals in need (see here, here and here for examples).

Thinking about the energy and empathy our species invests on behalf of other animals when disaster strikes resulted in a collision of two thoughts:

1.) If, as the Dalai Lama suggests, the pinnacle of evolved human empathy is the desire to help those different from ourselves, isn't helping other species the most highly evolved compassion of all?

2.) What if we applied this energy and empathy in daily, sustained ways to create new kinds of interactions with animals? These "new ways" could range from restoring natural habitats to passing legislation to help the hundreds of chimpanzees consigned to hellish lives in biomedical laboratories.

Anthropologists like Pat Shipman argue that we've become the human by interaction with other species around us — via hunting, animal domestication and thinking symbolically with animals. Could it be that new types of interactions with — and for — animals may propel us toward a new evolutionary future?

OK, maybe the idea of morphing into another creature based on our care for others is best left as a thought experiment. Any good biological anthropologist knows that we can't predict future environments accurately enough to specify how a species may change over time.

It's challenging also to see how the sort of emotional-cognitive shift that I'm envisioning might cause a speciation event, a biological process that would require reproductive isolation of some human populations from others.

But it's a symbolically powerful image, Homo empatheticus, isn't it?

You can keep up with more of what Barbara is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.

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