We Contain Multitudes: Walt Whitman, Charles Darwin, and the Song of Empathy

In the struggle for existence how do we herald the better angels of our nature?

Author’s Note: On Tuesday I will be traveling to Manchester, England for the International Conference for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine where I’ll be giving my talk entitled “A Historical Epistemology of Empathy from Darwin to De Waal.” In the lead up to my journey across the pond the iCHSTM organizers offered me the opportunity to publish a shortened version of my talk on the conference blog where I will be cross-posting what follows.

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.