WHITNEY CAIN, PHD

BLOG

The Link between Soft Foods & Compassion

homo-erectus-2242425_1920.jpg

I recently hatched a plan to write a book about compassion.  My husband advised me such a book would have little commercial interest or value.  Now I’m super serious about it.

Research exploring the evolution of compassion suggests its underpinnings are evidenced by the survival of hominins with masticatory impairment – a.k.a. teeth problems.  A skull found in Dmanisi, Georgia dating around 1.77 million years ago purportedly represents the earliest and best-preserved case of masticatory impairment.  Much like my Uncle Jimmy, the homo erectus to whom this skull belonged lost all but one of his teeth fairly early in adulthood.  Despite the protein heavy diet of the day and his toothlessness, the guy lived to into what then was considered older adulthood (ca. 40 years).  Evolutionary biologists surmise his friends – who were assumedly both toothed and compassionate – helped him meet his nutritional needs via easy to chew plant and animal foods.

Not to disrespect my early ancestors or anything, but Uncle Jimmy needed no such support.  He once boasted that even sans teeth he could out eat “any boy, man or village fatso.”  To be fair, Uncle Jimmy’s plate was heavily loaded with foods like chicken and dumplings, tomato aspic, and banana pudding.  Hence, his sustenance was texturally akin to those the hairy upright friends were finding to support their friend with the dental deficit.  Still, I’m just saying.

Before my brief dive into this research, it hadn’t really occurred to me whether or not our earliest ancestors acted compassionately.  Compassion is so necessary in our current world, I suppose I took it for granted past ones would have needed it, too.  Regardless, I’m heartened by our grunting ancestors’ calculus for helping based on something other than genetic propagation and reciprocity.  I love that their little bitty brains for figuring out how to help a toothless guy, even though doing so probably didn’t have much benefit for them.  

Consequently, I’m thinking more about the (most likely) women responsible for Uncle Jimmy’s binge fests at church homecomings, funeral lunches, and community center bingo tournaments.  I’m wondering if when they boiled chickens beyond recognition and let bananas soften until the fruit flies came if they had Uncle Jimmy in mind.  Probably so.

Resources & References

  • Goetz, J.L., Keltner, D., & Simon-Thomas, E.  (2010). Compassion:  An evolutionary analysis and empirical review.  Psychological Bulletin, 136(3), 351 – 374.
  • Hublin, J. (2009).  The prehistory of compassion.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(16), 6429 – 6430.
  • Photo Credit: mafnoor. (n.d.)  Homo erectus.  Retrieved from https://pixabay.com/en/homo-erectus-skull-ancestor-2242425/