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Hey Bill Nye! Is Human Empathy an Evolutionary Advantage?

A young Norwegian has a burning question about evolution and human feelings. Is it only our bodies that evolve, or do our emotions adapt to the world, too?

Trym: Hi Bill. This is Trym from Norway. I was wondering how come us humans have empathy? Is it normal for species to have empathy — I was just starting to read about Richard Dawkins' take on it. I was wondering how you would explain it? I love the way you explain things by the way. Thanks.

Bill Nye: You said your name with an accent that I will interpret Trym — I believe your name is? Trym, takk for your question. Thank you for your question. This is cool. So why are we empathetic? Just consider what a tribe of humans would be like without empathy, without ability to feel what someone else is feeling, without an ability to see it from another person’s point of view. It probably wouldn’t be a very successful tribe. You wouldn’t take care of each other. You probably wouldn’t divide up tasks. You do this and I’ll do that. I know that’s hard for you; I'll do this. I know you’re good at that, so you do that and I’ll do this. Imagine a tribe without empathy. So my claim, which is extraordinary at first, is not only are size and shape determined by a process of evolution, but so are our feelings. And empathy is part of that. Our ancestors without empathy were not as successful. And furthermore, while you’re on Richard Dawkins, look into primate behavior. Our ancestors — gorillas, bonobos, chimpanzees — they exhibit empathetic behavior.

They mourn. They take care of each other. They interact in a way that’s very much like and very similar to the way we interact. So check them out. Check out our primate buddies and you’ll see that I think empathy is deep within us. And as to its origins, that’s a great one. I’m not sure where it came from. Like dogs like to hang out together. I’ve seen gerbils, mice, and hamsters hang out together or seem to prefer each other’s company. So I think whatever that thing is that makes you — leads you to prefer one another’s company must be connected with the ability to feel what someone else, another organism is feeling. It’s a great question and it gets back to this deep thing, the nature of consciousness. Are we that different from other animals that we seem to be able to know that we are aware of our surroundings. We seem to be able to know that we’re going to die. We seem to be able to know what another one of our fellow humans is feeling or thinking. Where did that come from? These are deep neurological questions that perhaps you will be the neuroscientist who answers this problem and we could then create ways to help each other live better lives. And I’m not kidding. If we pass laws consistent with our understanding of empathy, our understanding of how the human brain works and then ultimately if you made artificial intelligence computers that had this empathetic quality, it really could do great things. Now in science fiction, you know, whenever you create anything artificial and things go bad, but that’s science fiction. We don’t have to do everything badly. We can make things great. That’s a great question, man. Takk. Tusen takk.

A dapper young Norwegian wants Bill Nye's perspective on human evolution. Not just the evolution of our shape and size, but also the evolution of human feelings. Nye takes an empirical perspective, examining the ways chimps and bonobos care for their young — and mourn the loss of their fellows. He concludes that human consciousness may not be as unique as we suppose and that animals may share our feelings, if not our ability to articulate them in language. Science is making progress in our understanding of human and animal emotion. A greater neurological understanding of how feelings exist in the brain could lead to a series of beneficial changes in society: new laws that are consistent with a scientific understanding of empathy and an artificial intelligence that is kinder and gentler than the crazed, maniacal versions we see in sci-fi films.

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