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  • Jeremy Rifkin. The Empathic Civilisation.

  • In the last ten years

  • there's been some very interesting developments in evolutionary biology

  • neurocognitive science, child development, research and many other fields

  • which is beginning to challenge some of these long held shibboleths that we've had

  • about human nature and the meaning of the human journey.

  • But, there is another frame of reference emerging in the sciences

  • which is quite interesting and really challenges these assumptions.

  • And with that, the institutions that we have created based on those assumptions

  • our educational institutions, our business practices, our governing institutions, etc.

  • Let me take you back to the early 1990s

  • sleepy little laboratory in Parma, Italy.

  • And scientists had a MRI brain scanning machine on a macaque monkey

  • as the macaque monkey was trying to open up a nut.

  • They wanted to see how the neurons would light up.

  • So the monkey's trying to open up the nut, the neurons light up

  • and just by serendipity, and this is how science sometimes happens

  • a human being walked in the laboratory, I don't know if it was by mistake

  • and he was hungry and saw the nuts and opened up one of the nuts

  • and tried to crack it open.

  • The macaque monkey was totally shocked

  • because, who was this invader in his laboratory?

  • And he didn't move, he just gazed at this human trying to open up the nut

  • just like he had done a few seconds earlier

  • and then the scientist looked on the MRI brain scanner

  • the same exact neurons were lighting up

  • when he observed the human being opening the nut

  • as when the monkey opened the nut,

  • and the scientists had not a clue as to what this was

  • they thought the MRI machine had broken.

  • They then began to put MRI brain scanning machines on other primates

  • especially chimpanzees with our big neocortex.

  • Then they went to humans, and what they found over and over again

  • is something called 'Mirror Neurons'.

  • And that is that we are apparently soft-wired

  • some of the primates, all humans

  • we suspect elephants, we're not sure about dolphins and dogs, we've just begun.

  • But all humans are soft-wired with mirror neurons

  • so that, if I'm observing you, your anger, your frustration

  • your sense of rejection, your joy, whatever it is, and I can feel what you're doing

  • the same neurons will light up in me as if I'm having that experience myself.

  • Now, this isn't all that unusual.

  • We know if a spider goes up someone's arm

  • and I'm observing it going up your arm, I'm going to get a creepy feeling.

  • We take this for granted, but we're actually soft-wired

  • to actually experience another's plight as if we're experiencing it ourself.

  • But mirror neurons are just the beginning of a whole range of research

  • going on in neuropsychology and brain research and in child development

  • that suggests that we are actually soft-wired not for aggression

  • and violence and self interest and utilitarianism

  • that we are actually soft-wired for sociability

  • 'attachment' as John Bowlby might have said

  • affection, companionship, and that the first drive is the drive to actually 'belong'.

  • It's an empathic drive.

  • What is empathy? Very complicated.

  • When little babies are in a nursery and one baby cries

  • the other babies will cry in response, they just don't know why.

  • That's empathic distress, it's built into their biology.

  • Around two and half years of age, a child actually can begin to recognize himself in a mirror.

  • That's when you begin to mature empathy as a cultural phenomenon.

  • And then, once a toddler can identify themselves

  • then they know that if they're observing someone else have a feeling

  • they know that if they feel something, it's because they're feeling it because someone else has it.

  • They're two separate beings.

  • Selfhood that goes together with empathic development.

  • Increasing selfhood, increasing empathic development.

  • Around eight years of age a child learns about birth and death

  • they learn where they came from, that they have a one and only life

  • that life is fragile and vulnerable and one day they're gonna die.

  • That's the beginning of an existential trip.

  • Because when a child learns about birth and death and they have a one and only life

  • they realise how fragile and vulnerable life is.

  • It's very tough being alive on this planet

  • whether you're a human being, or a fox navigating the forest.

  • So when a child learns that life is vulnerable and fragile

  • and that every moment is precious, and that they have their own unique history

  • it allows a child then, to experience another's plight in the same way.

  • That, that other person, or other being (could be another creature)

  • has a one and only life, it's tough to be alive and the odds are not always good.

  • So if you think about the times that we've empathized with each other or fellow creatures

  • it's always because we felt their struggle.

  • We have the whiff of death in empathy, and the celebration of life.

  • And we show solidarity with our compassion.

  • Empathy is the opposite of Utopia.

  • There is no empathy in Heaven, I guarantee you, I'll tell you before you get there.

  • There isn't any empathy in Heaven because there's no mortality.

  • There's no empathy in Utopia because there is no suffering.

  • Empathy is grounded in the acknowledgement of death and the celebration of life

  • and rooting for each other to flourish and be.

  • It's based on our frailties and imperfections.

  • So when we talk about building an empathic civilization, we're not talking about Utopia.

  • We're talking about the ability of human beings to show solidarity

  • not only with each other

  • but our fellow creatures who have a one and only life on this little planet.

  • We are 'homoempathicus', so here is the question

  • We know that consciousness changes in history

  • the way our brain is wired today is not the way a medieval serf's brain would be wired,

  • and their brain wouldn't be the same as the wiring of a forager/hunter 30,000 years ago.

  • So the question I asked at the beginning of this study six years ago is

  • How does consciousness change in history?

  • Because I wanted to imagine the following proposition

  • Is it possible that, we human beings who are soft-wired for empathic distress

  • is it possible we could actually extend our empathy to the entire human race

  • as an extended family

  • and to our fellow creatures as part of our evolutionary family

  • and to the biosphere as our common community?

  • If it's possible to imagine that

  • then we may be able to save our species and save our planet.

  • And when I say to you tonight, if it's impossible to even imagine that

  • I don't see how we're going to make it.

  • Empathy is the invisible hand.

  • Empathy is what allows us to stretch our sensibility with another

  • so that we can cohere in larger social units.

  • To empathise is to civilise, to civilise is to empathise.

  • With forager/hunter societies, communication only extended to

  • the local tribe and shouting distance.

  • Everyone over in the next mountain was the 'alien other'.

  • So empathy only extended to blood ties.

  • When we went to the great hydraulic-agricultural civilisations

  • script allowed us to extend the central nervous system

  • and to annihilate more time and space and bring more people together

  • and the differentiation of skills and the increasing selfhood

  • not only led to theological consciousness but empathy now extended to a new fiction.

  • And that is, instead of just associating with one's blood ties

  • we de-tribalised and began associations based on religious ties.

  • So a new fiction

  • Jews start to see all other Jews as extended family and empathise with Jews.

  • Christians start to see all other Christians as extended family and empathise with Christians

  • Muslims the same.

  • When we get to the 19th century, the industrial revolution

  • and we extend markets now to larger areas and create a fiction called 'The Nation State'.

  • And all of a sudden, the Brits start to see others in Britain as extended family

  • the Germans start to see Germans as extended family, the Americans as Americans.

  • There was no such thing as 'Germany'. There was no such thing as 'France'. These are fictions.

  • But they allow us to extend our families so that we can have loyalties and identities

  • based on the new complex energy communication revolutions we have

  • that annihilate time and space.

  • But if we have gone from empathy in blood ties

  • to empathy in religious associational ties

  • to empathy based on national identification

  • is it really a big stretch to imagine the new technologies

  • allowing us to connect our empathy to the human race at large in a single biosphere?

  • And what reason would we stop here at the nation-state identity

  • and only have ideological empathy or theological based empathy

  • or tribal-based blood-tie empathy?

  • We have the technology that allows us to extend the central nervous system

  • and to think viscerally as a family, not just intellectually.

  • When that earthquake hit Haiti and then Chile, but especially Haiti

  • within an hour, the Twitters came out

  • and within two hours, some cell phone videos - YouTube

  • and within three hours the entire human race

  • was in an empathic embrace, coming to the aid of Haiti.

  • If we were, as the enlightenment philosophers suggested

  • materialistic, self-interested, utilitarian, pleasure-seeking

  • it couldn't account for the response to Haiti.

  • Apparently, 175,000 years ago in the Rift Valley of Africa

  • there were about 10,000 anatomically modern human beings walking the grasslands, our ancestors.

  • The geneticists located one data base woman, it's a data baseline

  • apparently, her genes passed to everyone in this room tonight, the other ladies didn't make it.

  • Gets even more strange...

  • They located a single male, this is a data baseline for genetics

  • they call him the 'Y chromosome Adam'

  • apparently a very potent guy

  • his genes passed to everyone in this room.

  • So here's the news: 6.8 billion people, at various stages of consciousness

  • theological, ideological, psychological, dramaturgical