A historical epistemology of empathy from Darwin to de Waal: primates and perspective-taking after World War II

Much overlooked in Darwin’s theory of natural selection is his argument for the origin of social instincts that gave rise to shared common feelings between animals in a group. For Darwin, the “moral sense” had its foundations in the pleasure an animal felt from their social community and their identification with the internal state of others, or perspective-taking. From this followed the emergent instinct to “perform various services for them,” a trait that was promoted through natural selection when groups with a high level of reciprocation “would flourish best and rear the greatest number of offspring.”

This concept subsequently formed the basis for Peter Kropotkin’s 1902 work Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, first appearing as a series of articles in The Nineteenth Century beginning in 1890, and culminating in his posthumous work Ethics: Origin and Development in 1924. Both Darwin and Kropotkin emphasized that adopting the perspective of another was a natural evolutionary strategy and formed the basis for the modern conceptions of social duty and justice. 

Eric M. JOHNSON  | University of British Columbia, Canada