A measure of progress
A friend sent me a link to this on X. I don't know who wrote it.
Years ago, anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture.
The student expected Mead to talk about fishhooks or clay pots or grinding stones.
Mead said that the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a femur (thighbone) that had been broken and then healed. Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die.
You cannot run from danger, get to the river for a drink or hunt for food. You are meat for prowling beasts. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal.
A broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery.
Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts, Mead said." We are at our best when we serve others.
It's obvioous when you think about it that compassion is pretty rare in nature - that perhaps it's a capability unique to humans.With compassion humans transcend "nature - red of tooth and claw".
Caring for each other seems to have obvious evolutionary advantages for a species. It has prerequisites though.
It requires a species that is social.
So one might find compassion among whales or lions or antelope but not among tigers.
I recall stories of whales supporting injured whales. But whales don't have hands so they don't have the tools that humans use for compassion. Chimps are social and have hands.
I've not heard of compassion among chimps but maybe it's just not been observed yet.
The human capacity for compassion has blossomed as we have developed in the people we are now. The more we learn the more compassionate we can be. Modern medicine extends our compassionate capabilities a lot. I live in a city where there are wheelchair ramps built into the sidewalk at each street corner. That's compassion on a social level.
I can remember when those ramps weren't there. The cities had to be retrofitted. It was expensive. There was propaganda (beneficia) that showed what it was like for a person in a wheelchair to get around: ie stuff like: "Take a nightmare trip to the corner store in a wheelchair".
A case can be made that compassion provides a measure of human progress and that compassion has been increasing for hundreds of thousands of years. We have a ways to go yet but progress has been made.
Compassion might be unique to humans but it doesn't define us. We have other characteristics. We band together in competing groups.
This is a fractal kind of thing. There are countries and then provinces and then cities and then people all competing with each other and often compassion goes out the window. As our technical ability to be compassionate increases, so does our technical ability to make war.
War and compassion have a paradoxically symbiotic relationship. War can drive research into medicine (for instance) that is very beneficial in peacetime in enabling compassion. And a compassionate society makes war not so fatal. My father lost a leg when he was 20 in wwII and live a good life till he was over 70 thanks to medicine and pensions.
The world is full of all kinds of strife these days and there are mass migrations of people. I observe that those migrations always are towards places with a reputation for being a compassionate society. But, assuming we don't have a nuclear war soon, those migrations might show the evolutionary strength of compassion compared to war.
what do you think