Manhattan Project #48 Is Empathy Evolutionary?

(wherein veteran war correspondent Jed Berman indulges his own interests and explores the biological roots of empathy on TV)

“Cross my heart and hope to die, Fred. It’s just another story that we’ll have and the other guys won’t.”

“You’re my boy, Jed. I trust you on this. Now get out of here, I’m busy.”

As I walked back to my desk I thought about whether I was guilty of using my access to the news to push a personal agenda. I mean, any time we come up with a story idea our personal attitudes and interests factor into our decisions. Not with breaking stories, hard news, like crime or fires or something. Those pretty much dictate what you have to do. And we have to do them, to clear up the rumors that always fly around those things. But when we get into enterprise stories, where the reporter learns something and thinks it can be developed into a full report, I’d have to admit personal opinions play a role.

That can become a problem when it plays too big a role. I worked with one guy in the Midwest who figured if he thought something was interesting, everybody else did, too. I didn’t always agree with him. In his case, I thought his ego was doing more talking than his rational thinking. My approach has always been, at least as much as I can, to try to think like the general public. I try to play that Everyman role they talked about in my undergrad literary studies. No matter how interesting or important I think something is, I always ask myself what regular folks would think. I try to apply that all the way down to the level of deciding what questions I ask in an interview or at a news conference. What would real people ask, if they had the access I have as a reporter?

As I sat down, I asked myself if people would consider this mirror neuron stuff news or was I just indulging my own little crusade. I decided that Fred had it about right. As long as I played it right down the middle, and let people speak to the issue from both sides, it was a valid story, and one that Everyman would find interesting and relevant. And, in the process, I just might be firing the first volley—at least in Maine—in the battle to reclaim our real human natures, and just maybe put the brakes on all the killing that has left such awful bloodstains on the annals of history. Okay, that sounds pretty self-important, and I don’t mean to sound that way. I’m just trying to be honest with you, as I have from the beginning.

Anyway, I gave Jeff Barr a call in the PR office over at UMaine, and he gave me the names of a couple of psych profs who focused their research in cognitive psychology, where they were most likely to know about mirror neuron research. Jeff hadn’t heard anything about it, but he thought the two PhDs just might.

Turned out both of them did, and they were willing to sit down with me the next morning and chat about it. What I discovered, as I often did after prepping for interviews, was that I probably knew more about the whole thing than they did. But they knew enough to give me some pretty good sound bites for the piece. And, best of all, they disagreed with each other on how important mirror neurons were in answering the basic question about human nature.

One of them had actually worked with Marco Iacoboni in Italy on a fellowship. She was buying the whole bit and had even started doing some research on mirror neurons. She was also building a new course on the subject and the impact she believed knowledge of mirror neurons was going to have on human societies. It was good stuff, and she talked about it in nice, clear, short sentences that I could easily use in my story. The other prof didn’t reject the new findings, but he thought it was way too soon to suggest that the world—or at least the people of the world—would change drastically because human beings inherited mirror neurons from monkeys.

I also found a clip of Iacoboni lecturing on the topic on YouTube that I could use. Then I hit the street to see what people thought about all of that stuff, and as I expected, they mostly hadn’t heard anything about it. Some of them seemed to like the idea that human nature might be basically non-violent and empathetic, but some got almost angry about that suggestion. They insisted that we are born aggressive because we needed to be that way to survive. When I asked them how they knew that, they told me their parents and their churches taught them. I understood that.

I put it all together and played it absolutely straight, as Fred told me to. Actually, I would have done it that way anyhow, but I was extra careful not to let my personal opinions color what I wrote or the sound bites I selected. We ran it in both shows that night and I drove home after the eleven o’clock show anxious to see what reaction it got from viewers when I got to work the next day.

I wish I could tell you we got lots of reaction and it was all from people who appreciated the heads-up on human nature and thanked us for striking a blow for civility in human relations. But I can’t tell you that, because that’s not what happened. We got a couple of responses on our website from the usual goofballs—those people who seem to have nothing better to do than responding to newspaper and television stories online—who didn’t take the story seriously at all. One of them wondered if the monkeys in the early mirror neuron studies liked bananas.

And we got some calls on our voicemail. Those were from people who sounded like fairly right-wing Christians who angrily denounced us for accepting the idea that we were descended from apes. They said we should be ashamed of ourselves for telling people that something like moral behavior was passed down to us through our genes, when everyone knows morality is a spiritual gift from God, revealed to us through the Bible and the Holy Spirit. They sounded a lot like those people back at my undergraduate college, the ones who thanked the Lord for letting their brother kill more commies for Christ. Some sense of morality.

We got a couple of letters later from people who actually appreciated the story and thanked us for letting them in on the new discoveries. But that was about it. So much for my efforts to strike a blow for decency.

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