Friday, March 18, 2011

The fall of blood lust and the rise of empathy

St. Bernard of Clairvaux and a nun embrace a bloody crucifix (early 14th century). While co-opting blood lust as a means to strengthen its emotional appeal, Christianity also created a social environment that gradually removed such desires from the population.

In the past millennium, some European societies underwent a profound behavioral change. People no longer limited their trust to close kin and longtime friends. It became normal to trust even non-kin and strangers, and this increased trust allowed the market economy to take off. When people are generally “good-natured,” you no longer have to check and double-check every transaction for evidence of cheating. You no longer have to be on your guard when dealing with strangers. You no longer have to scrutinize facial expressions and body language for signs of deceit—or an oncoming sucker punch. You no longer have to overcharge to cover the costs of theft, vandalism, and “inventory shrinkage.”

This is what we call a high-trust society. Its advent was a milestone of cultural evolution, yet we tend to focus on more material signs of progress. Even more surprisingly, we tend to take a high-trust environment for granted. Aren’t people good-natured by nature? Isn’t anything else abnormal?

Well, no. That kind of abnormality used to be the norm. And it still is, in many societies.

What did this transition actually mean in behavioral terms? For the historical economist Gregory Clark, it meant a shift from improvidence, violence, impulsiveness, and leisure loving to thrift, prudence, negotiation and hard work—what some now deride as “middle-class values.” Indeed, these values were those of the nascent middle class, and they became more preponderant as that class itself became more preponderant. By the early 19th century, in England, even the working class largely had middle-class ancestry (Clark, 2009).

This is not to say that the older behavioral traits were completely removed from the English population. Rather, they were reduced to a level that allowed the growing middle class to impose its norms on the entire population. The first attempts at imposition came with the rise of Puritanism in the 16th and 17th centuries, but the high tide of this behavioral hegemony would be the Victorian era of the mid to late 19th century.

During the same period, another behavioral shift was an increase in empathy. People began to show more concern for strangers, non-kin, and even non-human animals. Furthermore, this greater outward concern was paralleled by greater inward feelings of grief, love, and worry for the Other.

It is difficult to grasp how people once felt toward others, especially those beyond the charmed circle of close kin and friends. Such feelings went beyond mere indifference. Clark (2007) describes the former popularity in England of blood sports and other forms of exhibitionist violence (cock fighting, bear and bull baiting, public executions). Yes, most normal people used to crave the sight of blood and suffering.

Bynum (2002) describes this infatuation with the sight of blood in the late Middle Ages. There was above all “the violent quality of the religiosity itself—what we might call its visual violence, especially the prominence of the motifs of body parts and of blood.” This blood cult often spilled over into real violence:

In an even more troubling and graphic sense, the blood that spilled across European piety also accused, calling for vindication of, as well as empathy with, Christ. The majority of the blood cults of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Europe were places of supposed host desecration, and these wonderhosts—sites of pilgrimage and pogrom—targeted lower-class women, thieves, and most of all Jews as violators of God. (Bynum, 2002, p. 31)

Blood lust is as old as humanity. Christianity merely used this desire to bind people to the faith. In time, however, Christianity became a means to remove blood lust from the repertory of normal feelings and, hence, to stigmatize people who openly voiced their love for the sight of blood. Such people found themselves increasingly marginalized—as suspected criminals, undesirable marriage partners, or simply “perverts.” With each passing generation, this predisposition was steadily culled from the population. We can see the beginnings of the displacement of blood lust by empathy in the 15th century, in the writings of the religious mystic Margery Kempe:

Margery tells us she thought of Christ beaten or wounded not just when she saw the crucifix but whenever she “saw a man or a beast . . . [with] a wound or if a man beat a child before her or smote a horse or another beast with a whip . . . as well in the field as in the town . . . .” To Margery, the violence of everyday life only reduplicated her sorrow at the violence inflicted on Christ. But the displacement could work the other way; the horror and filth of living could seem to pollute God. (Bynum, 2002, pp. 25-26)

Was this decline in blood lust driven by changes to the gene pool or by changes to learned behaviors? The answer is unclear, if only because natural selection acts indifferently on both. In their review of the literature, Jones and Gagnon (2007) state:

Some investigators have demonstrated a potential genetic basis for empathy (Hoffman, 2000). For example, Zahn-Waxler et al. (1992) found modest evidence for heritability of empathy and prosocial behaviours in 14- to 20-month-old monozygotic and dizygotic twins.

Further, empathic reasoning was associated with fewer behavioural problems in twin studies, suggesting a possible genetic basis for risk and resilience for psychopathology (Zahn-Waxler et al., 1996). Ultimately, these findings have been used to suggest that empathy has genetic influences as well as environmental ones (due to the modest heritability factor) during normal and problematic development.
(Jones & Gagnon, 2007, p. 227)

On the other hand, Kochanska (1993) argues for a more complex mix of heritable and environmental factors:

However, impulsivity may have a more complex relation with conscience development. It may indeed interfere with observing prohibitions and suppressing antisocial impulses, but it need not interfere with positive aspects of morality, such as empathy, sympathy, and response to others' distress. Bryant (1987) found that girls who at age 7 were characterized on Thomas and Chess's dimensions of temperament as intense and difficult to soothe (concepts that have some affinity to impulsivity) were more empathic at age 10. (Kochanska, 1993, p. 338)

Whatever the exact mix of genes and memes, Christianity eventually created a new man and a new woman. This cultural and biological evolution has been so successful that we are scarcely aware that human nature used to be very different. Hasn’t universal empathy always been normal? And blood lust abnormal?


Bynum, C.W. (2002). Violent imagery in late medieval piety, GHI Bulletin no. 30 (Spring), 3-36.

Clark, G. (2009).The Domestication of Man: The Social Implications of Darwin, ArtefaCToS, 2, 64-80

Clark, G. (2007). A Farewell to Alms. A Brief Economic History of the World, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford.

Jones, N. A., & Gagnon, C. M. (2007). The neurophysiology of empathy. In T. F. D. Farrow & P. W. R. Woodruff (Eds.), Empathy in mental illness. (pp. 217-238), Cambridge, England : Cambridge University Press.

Kochanska, G. (1993). Toward a Synthesis of Parental Socialization and Child Temperament in Early Development of Conscience, Child Development, 64 (2), 325-347


Harmonious Jim said...

This reminds me of one of the most famous books of modern academe: Foucault's "Discipline and Punish." It opens with a violent, bloody execution (for regicide if I recall) as a contrast to modern milder ways of punishment.

But Foucault's account of the context, causes, and significance is inferior to Evo & Proud's.

Anonymous said...

One wonders which parts of Christianity Christian Arabs emphasize.

I also note that the various Christian sects seem to have taken hold in China, Korea and Japan in the past and present. I also not that a number of individuals from China have demonstrated empathy.

It would also seem that the genes for Empathy etc would not be at a high frequency in parts of the Middle East.

Alan said...

I disagree with the comment that empathy levels are low in the middle east. In fact, my experience has been that high empathy levels may be part of what allows tyrants to hold sway, as many ordinary people are unwilling to resist violence with appropriate violence.

On the other hand, high impulsivity may be at play in the same societies.

Chris Crawford said...

While not wishing to minimize the significance of Christianity in the development of universal empathy, I'd like to suggest two factors that I consider to be of at least equal significance.

The first is the role of mercantilism. I urge you to read Jane Jacob's Systems of Survival, which posits two fundamentally different moral systems, a "guardian" system and a "mercantile" system. The mercantile system emphasizes trust and cooperation, while the guardian system emphasizes hierarchy and guardianship. Now let's compare and contrast various societies in European history: England, France, Netherlands, and Spain (I think Germany is a bit tricky in this regard, and Italy was never close to monocultural). I think it safe to say that all of these societies during the last millenium were roughly the same in terms of Christian influence, although I will assign somewhat greater secularity to English society. Next, let's rank them by mercantilist influence. England and the Netherlands come out way ahead of France and Spain in this regard. Finally, let's look at empathy as reflected in torture and general bloodthirstiness. Contrast the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution with the French Revolution; consider the fact that the Inquisition in Spain continued to torture people into the 19th century. I think it fair to rank England and Netherlands as more empathetic societies than France or Spain, at least during early modern times. The differences between these four societies were not in the degree of Christian piety, they were in the degree of mercantilism.

This pattern shows up in quite a few societies. Classical Greek society was profoundly mercantilist; classical Roman society wasn't at all mercantilist. The latter had gladiatorial contests, the former used hemlock for executions.

It would be interesting to compare the mercantilist city-states of Renaissance Itay (Genoa and Venice) with the non-mercantilist city-states such as Rome and Naples.

The second factor that you should look into is the concept of "mirror neurons", circuits in the brain that create internal mimics of externally observed behavior. Mirror neurons are what permit a baby to learn various physical actions by watching adults. They are also the reason why we wince when we see another person accidentally hit his thumb with a hammer.

Anonymous said...

Alan said:

I disagree with the comment that empathy levels are low in the middle east. In fact, my experience has been that high empathy levels may be part of what allows tyrants to hold sway, as many ordinary people are unwilling to resist violence with appropriate violence.

I think you are confusing fear and empathy.

Armchair Theorist said...

Given that females have higher empathy than males on average, it is no wonder that Christianity had a strong appeal to women initially ...

Dragon Horse said...


Only 2% of Japanese are Christian, most of those are Catholic. Most Japanese have never been Christian. The Shogunate stopped that from spreading, when they felt the Portuguese were getting too much influence (spreading their religion that teaches a foreign barbarian, known as the Pope is more important than the Emperor and enslaving Japanese). The Shogunate cruxified all the Japanese converts who would not renounce the faith and kicked out the Portugese, in favor of the protestant (and non-proletzying Dutch).

In any case, I know a bit about East Asia. Christians are thought to be around 10% of China's population and the fastest growing religion, but Buddhism and Confucianism are also on the rise again. Based on Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, I doubt CHristians will ever get over 25% in Mainland China. Korea has the largest CHristian population in the region, after the Philipines, a bit shy of 45% or so, and has stagnated. East Asians, in general don't seem big on Middle Eastern Religions (well not including the Malays in the Southest Asia who seemed to have jumped on a sufi version of Islam (and the Filipinos on Christianity due to colonization).

So how has this affected their empathy...based on having lived in Japan for a year and China for about 6 months, travelled around the region a few times, I think that East and Southeast Asians have a lot of empathy, for their own people. The idea of univeral human rights, and equal treatment under the law is largely absent from most people. (Then again you can say the same about some nations in Europe in 2011, although that is more in Eastern Europe).

Also, I don't believe that the average person in Japan or Korean had a lust for "blood sports' in recorded history, not as in Western and Central Europe. There were public executions and also some "blood sports" between the upperclass of Samurai in Japan during the feudal period, but nothing like Europe. There were no Gladiator Games in China, Japan, etc as in Rome.

Also trust varies. Japan and Korea are very high trust societies, which is why they build big multinational conglomerates. The Chinese are not nearly as high trust (maybe due to a larger population and cultural diversity even within the Han), they like family run businesses, which is why their are so few Chinese name brands, even in Hong Kong and Taiwan...

Tod said...

Was the Church influential in opposing torture? I think secular liberals were - I've read that Voltaire and Montesquieu were the first to call for torture to be banned.

(Dragon Horse, Isn't proselytizing banned in Singapore

Martin Nowak: a helping hand for evolution.
"In humans, that co-operation took a giant leap forward with the development of brains, and even more so with the invention of language. In the mathematical mechanisms for the evolution of co-operation created by Nowak and others, two key strategies for intelligent co-operation are "direct reciprocity" (I treat you according to how you have treated me) and "indirect reciprocity" (I treat you according to your reputation). Direct reciprocity is widespread in the animal kingdom, but indirect reciprocity is far rarer. Nowak has a simple explanation: "You can say it beautifully in one sentence, like my colleague David Haig at Harvard has done: 'For direct reciprocity you need a face; for indirect reciprocity you need a name.' For efficient indirect reciprocity, you need to be able to tell a story: 'Yesterday, when I had the following interaction with a certain person, this happened. So don't trust that person.' " It is humanity's ability to engage in this story-telling that led Nowak to give our species the title "super-cooperators". "

In the current New Scientist artlce Nowak doubts whether punishment is ever altruistic but saying bad things about someome is altruistic in my opinion because they are likely to try and get back at you in some way.

Tod said...

To be clear, I think indirect reciprocity (a type of altruistic punishment IMO) is relevant to this post because in a high trust society those who abuse that trust could prosper unless there is a social mechanism to deter them.

Stephen said...

I still have blood lust.

Fred said...

Does Gregory Clark discuss Alan Macfarlane's work at all? They both seem to have started with Malthus and ended up with Darwin...

Anonymous said...

What about the case of the Jews? Who tend to be timid and law abiding, but who look down upon trust and complacency with total disgust. Their culture emphasizes situational awareness and cleverness. I can tell you first hand the look on any complacency with an air of revulsion.

Kate said...

You have to wonder at a human's capacity for cruelty.
When I envision masses of Roman citizens (from varied socioeconomic backgrounds) reveling in the traumatic pain and prolonged suffering of another human being, ultimately heralding the most violent choice of death for these unfortunate individuals. There has to be a neurological basis for this, and one which we are ever so slowly evolving away from. We still own plenty of behavioral misconduct of the worst sorts, however it's enormity has diminished. But I will never cease to endeavor understanding the depravity of my own species. Why?

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