Will Empathy Save Us?

Biological Theory 7 (3):211-217 (2013)
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Recent prescriptions for rescuing civilization from collapse involve extending our human capacity for empathy to a global scale. This is a worthy goal, but several indications leave grounds for cautious optimism at best. Evolutionary biology interprets non-kin helping behaviors as products of natural selection that rewarded only the transmission success of resident genes within ancestors, not their prospects for building a sustainable civilization for descendants. These descendants however are now us, threatened with ruin on a warming, overcrowded planet—and our evolutionary bequeathal, in giving us empathy, may have also given us potential for resolve in guiding cultural evolution for the best interests of humanity. But can the latter trump the best interests of our genes? And if so, now that the liberal copying success of our genes is in conflict with the best interests of a sustainable civilization for our descendants, do the latter risk losing the empathic instinct presently called upon to save them?
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