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RSA ANIMATE: The Empathic Civilisation 

Empathy is very complicated. When little babies are in a nursery and one baby cries, the other babies will cry in response. Empathic distress is  built into their biology. Around two and a half years of age a child can begin to recognize himself in a mirror. That’s when you begin to mature in empathy as a cultural phenomenon. Selfhood goes together with empathic development, increasing selfhood, increasing empathic development.


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Around eight years of age a child learns about birth and death. They learn where they came from. That they have a one and only life. Their life is fragile and vulnerable and one day they’re going to die. That’s the beginning of an existential trip. Because when a child learns about birth and death and they have a one and only life, they realize how fragile and vulnerable life is. So a child learns that life is vulnerable and fragile, and every moment is precious. They learn they have their own unique history. It allows a child then to experience another’s plight in the same way.

Empathy is the opposite of utopia. There isn’t any empathy in heaven because there’s no mortality. There’s no empathy in Utopia because there is no suffering. It’s based on our frailties and our imperfections. So, when we talk about building an empathic civilization, we’re not talking about Utopia. We’re talking about the ability of human beings to show solidarity not only with each other, but our fellow creatures who have a one and only life on this little planet.


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Empathy is the invisible hand. Empathy is what allows us to stretch our sensibility with another so that we can cohere in larger social units. To empathize is to civilize. to civilize is to empathize. With forager/hunter societies communication only extended to the local tribe in shouting distance. Everyone over in the next mountain was the alien other. So, empathy only extended to blood ties.

We have the technology that allows us to extend the central nervous system. To think viscerally as a family not just intellectually. When that earthquake hit Haiti and then Chile, but especially Haiti, within an hour, the Twitters came out. Within two hours some cell phone and YouTube videos. Within three hours the entire human race was in an empathic embrace coming to the aid of Haiti.  


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Apparently 175,000 years ago, in the Rift Valley of Africa there were about 10,000 anatomically modern human beings walking the grasslands, our ancestors. The geneticists located one database women. As a database line, apparently, her genes passed to everyone, the other ladies didn’t make it. It gets even more strange. They located a single male, this is a database line for genetics, they call it the Y chromosome Adam. Apparently, a potent guy, his genes passed to everyone.

So, here’s the news. 6.8 billion people are at various stages of consciousness, theological, ideological, psychological, dramaturgical. We’re all fighting with each other with different ideas about the world. We all came from two people. The Bible got this one right. We could have come from many. We should begin thinking as an extended family. We should broaden our sense of identity. We don’t lose the old identities that nationhood and our religious identities, and even our blood ties. We extend our identities so we can think of humanity as our fellow sojourners and our other creatures here as part of our evolutionary family and the biosphere as our community.


The following article is derived from the accompanying video with Jeremy Rifkin. It is provided as an additional resource for your reading convenience.


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