Nature Makes the Case for Compassion

March 19, 2017 Carol No comments exist

Trees live in communities and help one another. Baboons teach us how to be peaceful. Humans are born to be good.


There you have three prime examples of how nature makes the case for compassion.

Mother Nature Wants Us to Be Compassionate

Why? Because she wants her children to do well. To survive, to thrive. And she understands that compassion must play a key role in the realization of that dream. 


So Mother Nature gives her children some useful tools

  • Feelings
  • Mechanisms that enable communication

She shows them how to use those tools to foster cooperation, to promote caring. She has made compassion an instinctive behavior.

A Compassionate Instinct

A growing body of evidence suggests that, at our core, both animals and human beings have what Dacher Keltner at the University of California, Berkeley, coins a “compassionate instinct.” In other words, compassion is a natural and automatic response that has ensured our survival. — Compassion: Our First Instinct | Psychology Today

It is interesting to note that he term “survival of the fittest” has been incorrectly attributed to Charles Darwin. (It was actually coined by Herbert Spencer and Social Darwinists who wished to justify class and race superiority.) In fact, Charles Darwin’s work is best described with the phrase “survival of the kindest.” In The Descent of Man, Darwin described how natural selection favored the evolution of compassion, regardless of what originally motivated such behavior: “In however complex a manner this feeling may have originated, as it is one of high importance to all those animals which aid and defend one another, it will have been increased through natural selection; for those communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.”

Fantastic True Stories

Journey with me as we explore some fantastic true stories. Get a glimpse into the ways nature employs compassion to nurture three of her species — trees, baboons, and humans. 


nature makes the case for compassion
Trees, like these in the Eilenriede city forest in Hanover, Germany, communicate with and help one another, according to Peter Wohlleben. (JULIAN STRATENSCHULTE/AFP/Getty Images)

Peter Wohlleben is the author of The Hidden Life of Trees. He began his career as a forester in western Germany’s Eifel mountains. In the late 1990’s he began to organize survival training and log-cabin tours for tourists. And that is when, in light of conversations with the visitors, his view of the forest began to change.

Suddenly, I was aware of countless wonders I could hardly explain, even to myself. At the same time, RWTH Aachen University began conducting scientific research programmes in the forest I manage. — Do trees have feelings too? One expert says they do

Trees as social beings that communicate, feel and help each other.


I refer you to this wonderful article: The subtle communication skills of trees – The Washington Post. Here are a few of my favorite excerpts:

  • Trees live in communities. They are connected through their root systems and that they not only exchange nutrients but even help sickly neighbors. They are “superorganisms with interconnections much like ant colonies.” Together they balance out extreme weather (by creating microclimates), protect one another against storms and pests, store water, and generate humidity. Each member in the community is valuable.
  • Scientists have discovered what one called the “wood wide web” — in which trees “exchange news about insects, drought, and other dangers.”
  • Trees warn each other of danger. Umbrella thorn acacias in the African savannah, for example, pump toxins into their leaves when giraffes munch them. Not only that, they also give off a gas to warn nearby trees that then immediately release toxic substances to protect themselves — these are “arboreal early–warning systems,” as Wohlleben explains.
  • Wohlleben writes about “youngsters,” their “mothers” and light deprivation, which is part of their “strict upbringing.” In an undisturbed forest, the canopies of old trees capture 97 percent of the sun, which doesn’t leave much for the young ones below, but that’s good because trees need to grow slowly in order to live long. Their wood gets denser (the inner cells hardly contain any air), which makes them less prone to breaking and more resistant against fungi and pests.

In  Do trees have feelings too? One expert says they do, author Peter Wohlleben provides his own edited excerpt of the book.


And, finally. I recommendTom Ashbrook’s interview with Peter Wohlleben.


nature makes the case for compassion
Baboons show us us to be peaceful primates.

In the early 1980s, “Forest Troop,” a group of savanna baboons I had been studying—virtually living with—for years, was going about its business in a national park in Kenya when a neighboring baboon group had a stroke of luck: Its territory encompassed a tourist lodge that expanded its operations and, consequently, so did the amount of food tossed into its garbage dump. —  Peace Among Primates | Greater Good

Dr Robert Sapolsky is a renowned American neuroendocrinologist. A New York Times article paints a wonderful portrait of this interesting man, whose cherished family photographs prominently feature baboons. 


The Forest Troop is a group of savanna baboons living in a national park in Kenya. In the early 1980’s, when this story took place, Sapolsky had been studying — virtually living with — them for years.

See Baboons Show Us How To Be Peaceful Primates for more on this fascinating story.


Dacher Keltner is my latest favorite social psychologist. He is the founding director of the Greater Good Science Center. His works include:

Let’s take a look at each of them.

The Compassionate Instinct

The Compassionate Instinct uncovers the new science of human goodness. 

This research suggests that compassionate behavior not only exemplifies a good, moral way to live, but carries huge benefits for compassionate people, their families, and their communities. More and more, it seems that rather than being irrational and superfluous, behaviors like compassion and kindness are actually conducive to human survival—and essential to human flourishing. —  The Compassionate Instinct”: Uncovering the New Science of Human Goodness | The Huffington Post

Dacher Keltner discusses these ideas in his article, The Compassionate Instinct | Greater Good. If you are interested in some details about the research, that’s a good place to read about them.

Born to Be Good

As mentioned earlier, Dacher Keltner is the author of Born to Be Good.


Here is the description from Amazon:

In this startling study of human emotion, Dacher Keltner investigates an unanswered question of human evolution: If humans are hardwired to lead lives that are “nasty, brutish, and short,” why have we evolved with positive emotions like gratitude, amusement, awe, and compassion that promote ethical action and cooperative societies? Illustrated with more than fifty photographs of human emotions, Born to Be Good takes us on a journey through scientific discovery, personal narrative, and Eastern philosophy. Positive emotions, Keltner finds, lie at the core of human nature and shape our everyday behavior―and they just may be the key to understanding how we can live our lives better. 

The first chapter of this fascinating book is titled “Jen Science.” This excerpt should certainly whet your appetite for more:

Jen science is based on its own microscopic observations of things not closely examined before. Most centrally, it is founded on the study of emotions such as compassion, gratitude, awe, embarrassment, and amusement, emotions that transpire between people, bringing the good in each other to completion. Jen science has examined new human languages under its microscope—movements of muscles in the face that signal devotion, patterns of touch that signal appreciation, playful tones of the voice that transform conflicts. It brings into focus new substances that we are made of, neurotransmitters as well as regions of our nervous system that promote trust, caring, devotion, forgiveness, and play. It reveals a new way of thinking about the evolution of human goodness, which requires revision of longstanding assumptions that we are solely wired to maximize desire, to compete, and to be vigilant to what is bad.


Seeing the world through this Darwinian lens of jen science could very well shift your jen ratio. The jen ratio is a lens onto the balance of good and bad in your life. In the denominator of the jen ratio place recent actions in which someone has brought the bad in others to completion—the aggressive driver who flips you off as he roars past, the disdainful diner in a pricey restaurant who sneers at less well-heeled passersby. Above this, in the numerator of the ratio, tally up the actions that bring the good in others to completion—a kind hand on your back in a crowded subway car, the young child who compliments the elderly woman on her bathing suit as she nervously dips her toe in a swimming pool, the woman who laughs as a stranger accidentally steps on her foot. As the value of your jen ratio rises, so too does the humanity of your world.

You can read the entire first chapter here: ‘Born to Be Good’ by Dacher Keltner – The New York Times.

The Takeaway

We have seen some striking examples of how nature makes the case for compassion.


We have seen evidence suggesting that compassion is deeply rooted in our brains, our bodies, and in the most basic ways we communicate. 


As we embrace this new view of human nature, let us make room for our compassionate impulses to flourish.

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