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February 10, 2010

Darwin's Compassionate View of Human Nature

Author Affiliations

Author Affiliation: Professor Emeritus, University of California, San Francisco.

JAMA. 2010;303(6):557-558. doi:10.1001/jama.2010.101

Darwin's little known discussion of sympathy reveals a facet of his thinking unknown to many, which is contrary to the competitive, ruthless, and selfish view of human nature that has been mistakenly attributed to a Darwinian perspective. In 1871, 11 years before his death, Darwin's greatest unread book, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex,1 was published. In the fourth chapter, Darwin explained the origin of what he called sympathy (which today would be termed empathy, altruism, or compassion), describing how humans and other animals come to the aid of others in distress. While he acknowledged that such actions were most likely within the family group, he wrote that the highest moral achievement is concern for the welfare of all living beings, human and nonhuman.

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