A (R)evolution of Tenderness

“Compassion is more important than intellect, in calling forth the love that the work of peace needs, and intuition can often be a far more powerful searchlight than cold reason. We have to think, and think hard, but if we do not have compassion before we even start thinking, then we are quite likely to start fighting over theories. The whole world is divided ideologically, and theologically, right and left, and men are prepared to fight over their ideological differences. Yet the whole human family can be united by compassion. And, as Ciaran (McKeown, co-founder of the Movement of the Peace People in Northern Ireland) said recently in Israel, “compassion recognises human rights automatically; it does not need a charter.”

Betty Williams’ Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Dec 1977



As a college professor, I have some “radical” opinions. For one, I would like to see war and suffering decrease in my lifetime, if not my kids’ lifetimes. I am confident that while war may sometimes be necessary, it does more harm than good, and I am also confident that those negative effects can last for generations. At the same time, I also value truth very much, and I try to avoid naïve interpretations of human biology and behavior. Instead, I try to take a nuanced view when it comes to things like the roots of war, nature/ nurture, and even human sexuality. With all of that said, I’m going to try to splice together a few recent threads to find some reasons for optimism, despite the way current events seem to be going around the world. 

Things are certainly not great. By the end of 2016, an estimated 65.6 million people had been forcibly displaced by conflict, the highest number ever recorded. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi lamented that “the world seems to have become unable to make peace.” Partly as a result of conflict, 20 million people are at risk for starvation in four countries: Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and northeast Nigeria.

The Peace Research Institute in Oslo (PRIO) issued a brief report this month, summarizing the state of global conflicts from 1946 to 2016. In all, the number of conflicts declined from 52 in 2015 to 49 last year, while the total number of battle casualties also fell 14%. This is a tiny bit of good news, although one can see in the figure below that there has been an uptick in all conflicts since 2011, and a long-term increase since the early 1960s. [It is debatable why we should start the clock at 1946, just after the deadliest period of human history, but c’est la vie.] 


By comparison, battle casualties per capita have generally decreased since 1946. While the number of conflicts have gone up, they have been primarily intrastate ones, and smaller in scale. A word of caution, however: “battle casualties” is a metric that looks at violent deaths only. It does not include indirect deaths due to things like broken infrastructure, such as lack of electricity, food/water, and health care that accompany war. If those numbers were included, the number of deaths surely would be higher. And, while the number of conflicts is a tally, battle deaths per capita is a rate, so the two aren’t directly comparable. The total number of deaths might present a different perspective, as might the rate per capita of people who were forcibly displaced.

We’re left with something of a mixed bag. I think it’s important to stay away from hyperbole and to remember complexity. I think we should embrace nuance, rather than to declare that “the world is as angry as it gets,” or that it is has never been more peaceful, or that war is an inevitable outcome of human nature. Clearly, it could be angrier, and it could always be more peaceful. Much like being in a car that has stopped short or accelerated quickly, it is the change in velocity (or violence) that affects our perception the most, and the direction of that change. This also depends on our mental timeframe, and over what period of time those changes have occurred.

Still, there are some reasons for optimism.

In April, Pope Francis gave a surprise Ted talk, where he called for a “revolution of tenderness.” He painted a picture of a world where money has become more important than people, “thus leaving behind thousands of human beings, or entire populations, on the side of the road.” He described tenderness essentially as being synonymous with empathy, as “being on the same level as the other” and “us(ing) our eyes to see the other, our ears to hear the other, to listen to the children, the poor, those who are afraid of the future.”

On the optimistic side, the Pope suggested that tenderness runs deep within people, regardless of where they live: “no system can nullify our desire to open up to the good, to compassion and to our capacity to react against evil, all of which stem from deep within our hearts.”

If that capacity for good and compassion rests deep within us, where does it come from? To a religious person, it probably has a divine source. A secular thinker would say that this stems from our natural history, particularly our pro-social, primate heritage. One estimate is that our primate ancestors became highly social primates about 52 million years ago, probably as a means of protection from predators as our ancestors made the shift from being solitary and nocturnal to living diurnally (Shultz et al 2011). Because of that history, the need to feel connected, and to cooperate, with others is likely embedded deeply within us. In other words, an evolution of tenderness.

Last week, two new studies suggested that chimpanzees are capable of true altruism. That is, they are willing to help non-relatives even at a cost to themselves. Here is one summary of these studies: “chimpanzees will give up a treat in order to help out an unrelated chimp, and … chimps in the wild go out on risky patrols in order to protect even nonkin at home.”

There are many other examples of primate “tenderness.”

  • In the mid-1990s, an adult female gorilla in an Illinois zoo carried an unconscious 3 year-old boy to an entrance used by zoo staff, as if to bring him to safety. (Link)
  • Rhesus monkeys will avoid pulling a lever that delivers food if they understand that the lever will deliver an electric shock to another monkey. One monkey refused to pull the chain (and thus eat) for 5 days, while another did so for 12 days. (Wechkin et al 1964)
  • Capuchin monkeys will share food with another in exchange for their assistance, even when they are not obligated to do so. (Link)
  • Wild mountain gorillas have been seen disabling snares they could otherwise have avoided, perhaps for the benefit for younger inexperienced individuals who might be caught by them (Link).
  • A pair of titi monkeys adopted an infant from another group for more than a year, with the adult female nursing the infant aside her own offspring and the adult male providing additional care. (Casar and Young 2008)
  • In fact, adoption in primates (and other vertebrates) is fairly common (Thierry and Anderson, 1986).
  • Among female baboons, those who had stronger and more stable social bonds actually lived longer than those who did not (Silk et al 2010).
  • A mother chimpanzee drowned attempting to rescue her three-year old son in a zoo moat in Dublin, Ireland (Link).
  • An adult male chimpanzee drowned while trying to save an unrelated infant who had fallen into water, again in a zoo moat (Goodall 1990).


In humans, compassion and altruism are also a part of our repertoire. It’s true that they are certainly not the only things in our toolkit. We can be incredibly violent as well. We are behaviorally flexible, able to adjust to a range of ecological and social situations, and we can take both altruism and violence to extremes. The primatologist Frans deWaal, once categorized humans as “bipolar in character,” adding that “When we are bad, we are worse than any primate that I know. And when we are good, we are actually better and more altruistic than any primate that I know.”   

Who’d want to hurt Spiderman? (source)

This is not exactly a new revelation. Shakespeare’s Henry V observed that we are capable of both “stillness and humility” in times of peace, and “hard-favour’d rage” in times of war.

  • Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
  • Or close the wall up with our English dead.
  • In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
  • As modest stillness and humility:
  • But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
  • Then imitate the action of the tiger;
  • Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
  • Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;

Basically, we are capable of change. In another recent Ted talk, Robert Sapolsky described the biology of our best and worst selves, arguing that we are not destined to be an either nasty or nice species, but responsive to the world around us, capable of either:

“Now, to me, the single most important point about all of this is one having to do with change. Every bit of biology I have mentioned here can change in different circumstances. For example, ecosystems change. Thousands of years ago, the Sahara was a lush grassland. Cultures change. In the 17th century, the most terrifying people in Europe were the Swedes, rampaging all over the place. This is what the Swedish military does now. They haven’t had a war in 200 years. Most importantly, brains change. Neurons grow new processes. Circuits disconnect. Everything in the brain changes, and out of this come extraordinary examples of human change.”

Sapolsky then provided a few examples of people who changed overcame their enmity to a particular group of people, shifting toward a more compassionate perspective:

  • John Newton, who became an abolitionist and wrote the song Amazing Grace after a life as a slave-trader.
  • Zenji Abe, a Japanese fighter pilot, who later apologized for his role in bombing Pearl Harbor.
  • The German, French and Scottish soldiers who fraternized during the Christmas Truce in 1914 (which I wrote about here).
  • Hugh Thompson, who defended some of the surviving Vietnamese people of the My Lai massacre against his fellow American soldiers.

And although, he didn’t cite it, one of the best examples of change comes from Sapolsky’s own research with savanna baboons (perhaps he didn’t have the time to include it). Male savanna baboons, who are normally antagonistic toward each other, became much more peaceful after a tuberculosis epidemic wiped out most of the high-aggression individuals in one particular group known as Forest Troop. This pattern of affiliative behavior persisted for at least twenty years, and into subsequent generations. Sapolsky wondered: “Is a world of peacefully coexisting human Forest Troops possible? Anyone who says, “No, it is beyond our nature,” knows too little about primates, including ourselves.”

Our view of the world really matters. The anthropologist Douglas Fry wrote that the way we see the world impacts whether we think conflict is inevitable, likely, or preventable:

“I will argue that the human potential for peace is underappreciated, whereas violence and warfare are emphasized, exaggerated, and thus naturalized. Naturalizing war and violence can help to create a self-fulfilling prophecy: if war is seen as natural, then there is little point in trying to prevent, reduce or abolish it. Consequently, the acceptance of war as a social institution facilitates its continuance” (Fry, 2006 :2).

If we remember that change really is possible, that one of the hallmarks of being human is our adaptability and our capacity for change, then perhaps we can get out of the fallacy that we are fated to live in a violent world. The Pope’s call for a revolution of tenderness is not out of the question. Evolution has already given us some important building blocks to make that happen. 



Cäsar C, Young RJ. A case of adoption in a wild group of black-fronted titi monkeys (Callicebus nigrifrons). Primates. 2008 Apr 1;49(2):146-8. Link

Fry DP. 2006. The human potential for peace: An anthropological challenge to assumptions about war and violence. Oxford Univ Press. Link

Sapolsky R. A Natural History of Peace. Foreign Affairs. Jan/Feb Link

Shultz S, Opie C, Atkinson QD. 2011. Stepwise evolution of stable sociality in primates. Nature 479: 219–22. Link

Silk JB, Beehner JC, Bergman TJ, Crockford C, Engh AL, Moscovice LR, Wittig RM, Seyfarth RM, Cheney DL. 2010. Strong and Consistent Social Bonds Enhance the Longevity of Female Baboons. Current Biology, July 1 Link

Thierry B, Anderson JR. 1986. Adoption in anthropoid primates. International journal of primatology. 7(2):191-216.

Wechkin S, Masserman JH, Terris W. 1964. Shock to a conspecific as an aversive stimulus. Psychonomic Science. 1(1-12):47-8. Link

4 thoughts on “A (R)evolution of Tenderness

  1. Awesome post! I’ve added it to something I wrote on Gun Control & Anthropology. Some of the material when you begin discussing how humans are more extreme than any other primate reminded me of a quote I used to put at the top of my Intro-to-Anthro syllabus: “Men are more moral than they think and far more immoral than they can imagine.” The quote is supposedly from Sigmund Freud, but I’ve never been able to find an original version.

  2. Pingback: Gun Control & Shoddy Anthropology: Human Nature, Culture, History

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