The Human Animal: The Savagery and Compassion Within

12/09/2014 12:17 BST | Updated 10/11/2014 10:59 GMT

It is time to stop separating humans from animals when attributing behavior. It is not about dividing ourselves into those who have risen above an animalistic past and those who are slave to it. Humans are animals, we share a common ancestor and so share genes for cognitive development and behavior. Accepting our evolutionary lineage is perhaps to admit that brutality is inherent in all of us, but it also allows us to see that empathy can be too. And this is something that could save us.


If you had been sitting on the steps of St Pauls in the early hours of the morning several weeks ago you would have seen the following: A herd of mythical creatures stampeding through the city of London, past St Pauls, across the Millennium Bridge and disappearing just as the sun reached the tops of the city towers.

Organised by Artful Badger and The Masketeers for The Wilderness festival it was a beautiful scene, masked human creatures howling at all in their wake. But it was unsettling too. Did the animal masks produce, or simply uncover such wild abandonment?

In a world full of conflict and violence we condemn many for being 'inhuman'. Savagery does not reside in all of us. We are not at heart all just animals. Are we?

I believe that yes, we are. But it doesn't mean we can not rise above it. Animals are not always savage, in fact, quite the opposite.

Frans De Waal, a Dutch primatologist and ethnologist reminds us of this. We must be wary of anthropomorphism, but also of the opposite: anthropodenial. "the blindness to the human-like characteristics of other animals and to our own animal-like characteristics"

We divide humans from other animals and attribute behavior accordingly. We distance ourselves from 'base' animalistic savagery but in doing so we also deny animals emotions such as empathy. Is this fair?

In evolutionary terms separating the cognitive pathways behind emotionally led behavior between humans and other species makes no sense. It would be uneconomical for evolution to have diverged so radically and in such a relatively small period of time as to produce different brain processes in higher species for similar behavior. We do not propose different causes for the same behavior in, say, dogs and wolves, so why should we for example for humans and chimpanzees, which are genetically even closer?

Veneer theory attributes moral problem-solving to the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain most recently evolved. But fMRI imaging of the human brain has shown that moral dilemmas activate a wider variety of areas present in all mammals.

Could emotions such as empathy be not just a 'human' but an 'animal' quality? Evolutionary theory, modern neuroscience and the behavior of our primate relatives suggests it is possible. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is a cross cultural code that underpins not just human morality but also unites empathy and reciprocity, qualities that underlies the behavior found in all social animals.

The cellular structure, the very molecule of DNA, which codes for every neuron within our brain and every other cell we possess, is a universal molecule. It is found in every organism on earth. This is not to say that human brains do not possess unique differences to other animals, they do. Our understanding and interpretation of emotion is obviously more complex. If we see empathy as an emergent property of the advantage to act in groups, then morality could simply be the description of these needs, making use of our unique complex language ability.

If the potential for violence is inherent in all animals, including humans, due to the shared phylogeny of the whole animal kingdom, empathy could be too. De Waal believes that empathy resides in a part of the brain so ancient we share it with rats. I want to believe this. For if empathy, and so compassion, and even perhaps morality, comes from a part of our brain shared to some degree with all other animals, then it is truly in our nature. It resides somewhere, in all of us. And this, in the face of all the brutality of the world, should give us hope.


Photos courtesy of The Masketeers