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Creating a Compassionate World: Addressing the Conflicts Between Sharing and Caring Versus Controlling and Holding Evolved Strategies

For thousands of years, various spiritual traditions and social activists have appealed to humans to adopt compassionate ways of living to address the suffering of life. Yet, along with our potential for compassion and self-sacrifice, the last few thousand years of wars, slavery, tortures, and holocausts have shown humans can be extraordinarily selfish, callous, vicious, and cruel. While there has been considerable engagement with these issues, particularly in the area of moral psychology and ethics, this paper explores an evolutionary analysis relating to evolved resource-regulation strategies that can be called “care and share” versus “control and hold.” Control and hold are typical of primates that operate through intimidatory social hierarchies. Care and share are less common in non-human primates, but evolved radically in humans during our hunter-gatherer stage when our ancestors lived in relatively interdependent, small, mobile groups. In these groups, individualistic, self-focus, and self-promoting control and hold strategies (trying to secure and accumulate more than others) were shunned and shamed. These caring and sharing hunter-gatherer lifestyles also created the social contexts for the evolution of new forms of childcare and complex human competencies for language, reasoning, planning, empathy, and self-awareness. As a result of our new ‘intelligence’, our ancestors developed agriculture that reduced mobility, increased group size, resource availability and storage, and resource competition. These re-introduced competing for, rather than sharing of, resources and advantaged those who now pursue (often aggressively) control and hold strategies. Many of our most typical forms of oppressive and anti-compassionate behavior are the result of these strategies. Rather than (just) thinking about individuals competing with one another, we can also consider these different resource regulation strategies as competing within populations shaping psychophysiological patterns; both wealth and poverty change the brain. One of the challenges to creating a more compassionate society is to find ways to create the social and economic conditions that regulate control and hold strategies and promote care and share. No easy task.

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