Survival of the Empathic Machine

Editor’s note: For those of our readers who are curious about how we learn what we learn, the scholar of our team, Kelly Lynch, has provided the following on the evolution of empathy. This kind of information is where it all starts, and as practitioners working to engender empathy through volunteering, our jobs are to translate this information and make it accessible to all readers.

Please enjoy, share your own research, and join us in learning from one another.

By Kelly Lynch

In Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene 1 he traces the existence of all people, animals, bacteria and viruses back to an ancient molecule he calls a “replicator” molecule. True to its name, the replicator had a really cool ability to make copies of itself within the primeval soup that was early Earth. But not all copies were perfect. As Anthony Hopkins’ character Robert Ford says in Westworld, “Evolution forged the entirety of sentient life on this planet using only one tool: the mistake.”

The replicator molecules made mistakes, thus creating a variety of replicator molecules competing for the building blocks to make more copies. A competition arose when replicators became either faster at making copies, better at making exact copies – or were simply able to live longer than others.

We may be survival machines, but it doesn’t always boil down to who is the fittest.

As some replicators thrived, others died silent, unfeeling deaths. Those who thrived were only able to continue doing so by protecting themselves, starting first with a thin film of protection around a group of molecules, and eventually evolving to become what Dawkins calls “survival machines.”

“Now they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by torturous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence […] now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.” 2

Like any respectable sci-fi geek, I appreciate the term “survival machine”; and let’s not dismiss how close “replicator” is to “Replicant.” But, I also appreciate that not all human beings are walking this earth simply to survive (though our genes might be). Charles Darwin has a bad rap – survival of the fittest is one of those intellectual shortcuts that has haunted the legacy of his entire body of work. We may be survival machines, but it doesn’t always boil down to who is the fittest.

UC Berkeley professor Dacher Keltner finds that we are, in fact, hardwired to be kind.

Empathic helping behavior may have also evolved because of its contribution to genetic fitness, and an impulse to care for offspring is almost certainly genetically hardwired in humans as well as in other mammals. Once the empathic capacity evolved, following the principle of motivational autonomy (i.e., motivation for a given behavior becomes disconnected from its ultimate goals), it could be applied outside the parental-care context.” 3

As survival machines, we’re programmed to make sure we and our offspring are safe, protecting the immortal coil, so to speak. But this ability to care for life beyond our own and our immediate family has itself evolved within social contexts through time.

The Importance of Relatedness

Motivational autonomy links back to self-determination theory (SDT) – in short, a psychological theory that demonstrates human beings have inherent growth tendencies. SDT identifies three innate needs that allow for increased function and growth: competence, relatedness and autonomy.

The theory states that to actualize inherent potential, humans need nurturing from social environments. This is where volunteerism is a means to an end – a place where institutional and, quite frankly, just regular old prejudice can be overcome.

“Recent studies with human volunteers have documented that the neural network implicated in empathy for pain is modulated by various social and interpersonal factors. For instance, one fMRI study demonstrated that empathic arousal is moderated early in information processing by a priori attitudes toward other people […] activity in that network is enhanced when people viewed their loved ones in pain compared to strangers and is reduced if the person in pain has been unfair in a prior interaction or is from a different ethnic group.” 4

Empathy is not automatic, and it is not reflexive. 5 We have to work for it, because we’re constantly pushing back against evolutionary imperatives that don’t necessarily fit the way we now live.

Though it’s not always life or death (just sometimes), our ability to connect and our access to certain social groups plays a very large and very important role in how we grow and realize our own potential and our freedom, our own value and the equal value of those around us. Volunteerism places us in social environments where we interact with different social groups, and where, with the right linguistic and behavioral guides in place, volunteers can make sense of and empathize with the life of a person in a very different social group.

In The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, Darwin says:

“As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races. [If they appear different] experience unfortunately shows us how long it is before we look at them as our fellow creatures. Sympathy beyond the confines of man, that is humanity to the lower animals, seems to be one of the latest moral acquisitions… This virtue [concern for lower animals], one of the noblest with which man is endowed, seems to arise incidentally from our sympathies becoming more tender and more widely diffused, until they extend to all sentient beings.” 6

You can play a part in breaking down the artificial barrier between groups of people by leading the change through volunteering – and we want to teach you how to do it. Join our free, online course Empathy in Motion: The Power of Employee Volunteering for further education on the evolution of empathy and practical steps for applying your learning.

Realized Worth designs and implements corporate volunteer programs. Call us to discuss opportunities for your company, or email us via You can also reach out to us on Facebook and Twitter.

Kelly Lynch
Project Manager, Brand and Content Specialist
Realized Worth

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  1. Dawkins, R. (1989). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  2. p. 19-20
  3. Decety, J. (2011). The neuroevolution of empathy. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 1231, 35 – 45. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2011.06027.x (p. 41)
  4. Decety, 2011, p. 39
  5. Decety, 2011, p. 39
  6. Goguen Hughes, L. (December 23, 2010). Survival of the kindest. Retrieved from