TED and the Celebration of Normal Human Empathy

TED videos have become regular additions to my classroom presentations for the past few years now. The format is great, 20 minutes tops, no professors droning on, no bullshit, no wasted words. You gotta get your point out quick and concise. One can find info on any scientific subject imaginable, of course I select those that apply most directly to the subjects I teach: neuroscience, human and animal behavior, developmental psychology, etc.
But in perusing dozens of these innovative and informative vids over the years, despite the incredibly broad range of topics covered, a consistent theme appears: making the world a better place for our fellow humans. Normal human empathy abounds. And the second theme you will notice, is predominantly secular.


Check out the heartfelt delivery and optimistic perspective of Peter Diamandis presentation which excerpts his book: “Abundance

He paints a picture of accomplishment and optimism, emphasizing the better angels of our nature, our curiosity, creativity and drive for knowledge AND most importantly for what purpose, more money? faster automobiles? another football team?
NO, to make the world a better place: to increase access to clean water, feed everybody, produce cheap and accessible fuels, cleaner air, give everybody the chance to live a secure, self-fulfilled life free of disease and violence.
Most of the videos you can peruse on any subject imaginable display this underlying theme. Empathy for others. For all the untold millions we will never meet, will never see, never know.


This is quite the opposite of what religions emphasize. Despite their formidable involvement in charitable activities worldwide, religions emphasize the negative aspects of the human psyche and our existence.
Life is all about suffering” is the first of the eight-fold truths of Buddhism. Man is innately depraved, doomed to sin, evil, even disgusting in the eyes of god, incapable of moral living without the threat of eternal fire is the Xian outlook repeated ad nausem. A rather dismal view.
In contrast the secular content and approaches of the vast majority of TED videos speak of how far we have come in the modern era to alleviate hunger and suffering or advance medicine and technology, again all this done to make a better world.
AND most importantly we’re not done yet. The emphasis is on building on our accomplishments and developing more of the natural human empathy we have evolved to an unprecedented level, almost obscenely so compared to the precursors seen in our animal cousins.
A small vignette should suffice to illustrate the point:

Any day, everyday, all over the globe, at any moment in dozens of places an airplane sits waiting on the tarmac. Delayed minutes, hours, many hours. Mostly full of total strangers, 100 or more on the average flight, a bit dismayed, impatient, even perturbed, but despite the occasional boor who exhibits some bad behavior now and then, these unrelated bipedal primates behave themselves admirably for the most part, respecting each other’s space, sympathizing with one another’s plight, even assisting someone with an infirmity or a small child until they depart finally for their connections or disappointingly to the last minute accommodations resulting from cancelled flights. Very rarely is there a report of an argument or altercation.

Now put 100 chimps, unrelated, in that plane, on the tarmac. Strap them in first in that long aluminum tube and slam the door, tight.
You’ll have body parts in minutes.


We are not over-evolved chimps. Chimps are not undeveloped humans. Despite sharing 95-98% of our genetic material (depending how you measure it) we are separated by 5-6 million years of divergent evolution. We have similar body plans, plus a host of other features common to all primates, but in spite of sharing a disturbing propensity for male coalitional violence, we possess empathy, a capability for respect of the rights and well-being of others, even total strangers of our species, which is utterly unprecedented in the entire animal kingdom and wholly unreplicable by our closest genetic cousins.

We give billions in aid to total strangers on the other side of the world every time there is another natural disaster, another humanitarian crisis. We could do more to be sure, but what the human animal does for non-kin is off the scale of even the most altruistic of animal behaviors. There is no precedent for it

So, while the worlds religions are tripping over themselves wrestling with depraved medieval interpretations of already dismal Bronze Age primitive and bleak perspectives on the human psyche, all the good folks pleading their case for an even better world at TED are exercising the better angels of our nature.






Leave a Reply