Paul Ehrlich: Humans are wired to be empathetic

In his new book, the author of The Population Bomb talks about our human ability to have empathy.

Paul Ehrlich is a Stanford biologist who wrote the controversial bestseller The Population Bomb in 1968. He’s co-author of a new book, Humanity on a Tightrope, released in 2010, about our human ability to have empathy – to feel what others are feeling.

Paul Ehrlich: We do have the basic equipment to change the way we deal with the world, the environment and other people. The equipment is the nervous system.

Ehrlich said that humans – down to the level of neurons – are specially wired to be empathetic. As an example, he referred to the central metaphor or his book, a tightrope walker. He said a crowd watching a swaying tightrope walker will also tend to sway.

Paul Ehrlich: Because you actually are able to match their movements. There’s all kind of studies now showing that you seem to perform the same activities that you are observing

Ehrlich said that one reason it’s been so difficult for people to experience empathy for people across the globe is that, biologically, we’re not equipped to consider the needs of a tribe of seven billion – that’s Earth’s current human population.

Paul Ehrlich: That is, we still haven’t solved the problem of a small group animal evolved culturally and genetically to deal with groups of 50 to 100 people. We’re now trying to live in groups of 7 billion, and we haven’t solved the problem yet. He described at least one problem that he feels has been caused by our lack of ability to consider the “big” picture.

Ehrlich said that he feels the people most divided by lack of empathy are the rich and the poor.

Paul Ehrilch: We don’t care enough. Put yourself in the position of somebody in Sub Saharan Africa trying to live on less than a dollar a day, and hungry, or somebody sleeping on the street in an American city, not able to find a job. Over maybe too long a career, from some people’s view, I have been struggling, trying to figure out what we need to do to change things, and more and more, as with my colleagues, we come to the point of view that it’s human behavior that needs to be changed.

He mentioned the Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior going on at Stanford University, which he and a number of colleagues are undertaking to tackle the ethical questions of the day, as they relate to the scientific.

Paul Ehrlich: What do we owe the future generations? Is it right to destroy our life support systems without caring about what happens to our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren and their great- grandchildren? It’s a gigantic thought experiment, but it’s a thought experiment we’ve got to do very fast if we’re going to change our behavior in time.

Beth Lebwohl