Our empathy system did not evolve by accident but in direct response to the significant challenges we faced as a species in our evolutionary history. Due to the long gestation period of brain development that human infants go through to reach adult maturity, it was particularly important that we as humans developed a more acute and sensitive ability to empathise with the needs and emotions of our young. Our compassionate and caring responses are thought to have originally developed in response to our empathy system. This caring behaviour naturally contributed to survival and passing down of genes.
More recently in our brain evolutionary history, we began to recognise and understand the implicit survival advantage of living in small groups which afforded far better protection, in searching and foraging for food, which clearly aided our chances of reproduction. Having the innate ability to empathise and understand how someone else might be thinking or feeling had a clear advantage in group interaction, whether it be in hunting, gathering, and in building relationships that identified us as part of the group or tribe. The ability to recognise someone’s distress whether it be emotional or physical such as sickness or injury, without becoming overwhelmed but to help, has served as another important survival advantage to both ourselves and our groups. Through evolving an increased capacity for compassionate caring towards others, it served to influence our comfort systems, which in turn stimulated a greater climate of psychological safety and connectivity between people. As a result of us feeling more safe it enabled us to focus on others and our group tasks rather than just ourselves, helping us adapt to greater complexity in life whilst also increasing our courage and motivation to go beyond individual limitations or fears. Subsequently this further increased pro-social behaviour and enabled us to collaborate and innovate.
It is also thought our compassion system primarily evolved as an adaptive advantage to help us both survive and manage the many challenges and crisis that we as a socially connected society face. This is why our modern-day brain has such significant areas predisposed towards caring and compassion and helps us understand why we are positively or negatively influenced by the levels we may receive from others. In the future our more recently evolved compassion system (in evolutionary terms) will become even more fundamental to both our survival and success in managing more complex challenges as a species and also that of our planet.