Empathy

I caught an episode of the PBS series "Becoming Human" the other day. The subject was Homo erectus, our ancestors who lived for a couple of million years from roughly 2 million BC to 50,000 BC. The transition from earlier ancestors to H erectus involved a major change in size, locomotion, brain size, and diet. The larger brains required more nutrition and a longer childhood for the brain to grow outside the womb. The extended childhood almost certainly involved the development the characteristically human trait of empathy.

Empathy, the ability identify mental and emotional states of others, is a very fundamental human trait that provides much of the glue that holds society together, but its also a trait that seems to be largely absent in a fair number of people. Sufferers with autism, and various disorders of the autism spectrum are prominent examples. This is an extremely severe social handicap, but some, at least, of the afflicted nonetheless lead productive, creative, and even highly successful lives.

Paul Dirac, numerous mathematicians, and perhaps even Newton (not to mention Dr. Sheldon Cooper) seem to have fit the category. Perhaps the disconnection from ordinary human affairs provides both a spur and an opportunity to focus on the abstract.

Ayn Rand looks like another plausible candidate. Certainly she displayed notable lack of empathy as both child and adult. In Anthem, even the scenes in which the hero is tortured are curiously lacking in affect and emotional impact.

It seems surprising that a person without understanding of others emotions could become a charismatic personality, but perhaps it really isn't. Those of us tossed by the emotional storms of life can admire the peculiar calm of a Mr. Spock. The cold blooded thinker can learn to push the buttons of emotional response even if they can't feel the emotions.

I think I have heard that sociopaths are typically lacking in empathy. I wonder if that also fits cult leaders and pimps. That would make a collection: prophets, pimps, sociopaths and mathematicians. And, oh yeah, conservative economists - or am I being redundant?

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