What are the origins of empathy? Behind the concepts of nature and evolution is creation; the debate is not in if we are created but how we have been created. Given to us is a facility, empathy, that helps us build a relationship with the world around us: people, things, and the surrounding environment. What we have has developed over countless years.
In Nature we see the beginnings of morality as the actions of animals in relation to each other, usually as mothers raising their young. But also we see animals communicating and interacting in other ways with others of their species, and also with animals of other species, as has been found in elephant behavior, and also in other animals such as from the whale family.
In Society: From nature came humanity, and so did the human social ability for interaction that has enabled us to create our society. The types of societies closest to nature are tribally native. In the tribal Natives' closeness to nature is pureness in their morality; in the views of Darwin and Aristotle, as well as Native scholars, morality comes from nature. Often the traits that Natives have to help them survive in nature are the traits that our society now describes as ideal for any person.
"Native knowledge about the natural world tends to view all--or at least vast regions--of nature, often including the Earth itself, as inherently holy rather than profane, savage, wild, or wasteland." .. "Tribal culture can allow for a science that is negotiated in the same way that people negotiate social relations with one another." --David Suzuki
Biology of Empathy: Mirror and spindle cells are the
physiological basis for empathy in humans, primates, and even some
whales. Humans are not born with theses cells functioning, or they may
not exist at birth at all. They start developing in a baby at four
months, with nurturing for the baby, soon to be a child, being critical
to the baby's growth. The pleasures of the parent-child relationship
are the most crucial contributors to developing empathy for a baby.
Mirror cells give us the physiological basis for empathy as humanity knows it. Empathy happens on many different levels; the most important is the social level, empathy gives us our natural ability to be responsible to others.
Spindle cells are connecting cells, and with mirror cells they give us the physiological basis for empathy -- as humanity knows it. Empathy happens on many different levels. It happens on a personal level in our imaginations, in pairs or small groups as fellowship, and in society allowing us to be responsible to our world.
Empathy is not telepathy, though there have been times I have thought I have been reading other people's minds. That happens when the empathic mirror cells are over-working; they drive us crazy at times.
Effectively, empathy is not learned because it is naturally developed. Those who cannot feel their way to a good life through empathy, because they lack mirror and/or spindle cells, have to learn how to be altruistic. Here is some writing from someone who suffered from Aspergers Syndrome, but then developed mirror cell functionality later in life, becoming empathic:
"I can attest to the fact that empathy is an inborn, reflexive and instinctual ability and that I developed empathy late, at 30 years old. Since I remember being without empathy and now that I have developed some empathy, I am in unique position to tell you what it is. I did not know that other people experienced emotions until a few years ago, and this was not due to a lack or intelligence or opportunity to learn. But a predilection to use logic and systems in an inappropriate attempt to understand others combined with an inability to leave my own perspective and see another persons point of view. --DiamondDave, from Wikipedia
Empathy is social empathy; empathy brings us together in communication. The mirror cells allow the level of communication that sometimes seems telepathic; everything is communicated through eye contact, or through other senses. The mirror cells also allow us to absorb another's emotions through their subtle expressions, or "body English." Spindle cells tie all this together by creating high speed pathways between significantly different parts of the brain allowing for imagination, or what scientists call modeling. Einstein specifically mentioned the imagining process as part of his developing his theories.
Empathy is not only happy and beneficial communication. If someone is being mean to you, they are being toxic; through the mirror cells, they dump their toxicity into you, ruining your day. Issues for you become complicated as your spindle cells further enable your empathy so that you embrace the toxicity-- to understand it. Friends, of course, will sense this and may try to empathically steer you away from these thoughts by distracting you with happier thoughts. I personally feel that people who are well nurtured, and therefore more empathic, handle the stresses of life better. But because their empathy allows them to further embrace life, they may be more greatly affected by the most extreme form of stress: trauma.
To survive in the competitive world, you have to limit your empathy. For instance, if you start feeling sorry for the 10,000's of animals that have been butchered for your food, you may startle your family. But if you stop eating meat, you will likely live ten years longer. Being empathic in this case means being selfish. There is a world religion that protects people who are selfish in this empathic way; it is Buddhism. Truly devout Buddhists don't kill anything; they have empathy for everything -- there is no limit to their empathy.
Imaginative empathy: Azar Nafisi, an Iranian writer living in the West who writes in opposition to the controlled and war-like conditions in her native country, makes a most important contribution as shes for us how these combined forces within our minds can extend our empathy beyond our senses to transcend distance and social differences. She describes how the brain's most elegant constructs, empathic thought and imagination, naturally work together to create humanity's most noble reflections, and how necessary these reflections are.
"No amount of political correctness can make us empathize with 'a child left orphaned'" .. "Only curiosity about the fate of others, the ability to put ourselves in their shoes, and the will to enter their world through the magic of imagination, creates this shock of recognition. Without this empathy there can be no genuine dialogue, and we as individuals and nations will remain isolated and alien, segregated and fragmented." --Azar Nafisi
From our natural empathy we have formed our concepts of morality and our sense of normalcy. And from these come the stands by which we define our human society. De Wall, an important elephant researcher, uses the familiar Russian wooden doll as a metaphor to describe the development of morality with the smallest most inside doll as the "natural affection" (Darwin's term for empathy) of our most distant animal ancestors. There is a well-studied monkey group near Puerto Rico on Cayo Santiago that has a synergistic social order. Every monkey shares food and information about food with all the other monkeys of the group. Monkeys that don't share get kicked around by the other monkeys. This shows a very sophisticated example of empathy; but the odd thing is that mirror and spindle cells have not found in monkey brains so far. These brain cells may be more widespread than presently believed, or there may be other neurological constructs in animals that have the same empathic effect as the mirror and spindle cells.