PRACTICING COMPASSION: Infusing Activism With Altruism

by Jovel Queirolo, ’14

Stanford’s Project Compassion recently brought evolutionary biologist (and revolutionary) David Sloan Wilson to campus to discuss the evolutionary significance of altruism and compassion. He defined the term compassion, in biology, as awareness of suffering and the wish to relieve it. He defined altruism as concern for another’s welfare even at the expense of oneself. He explained that altruistic and compassionate creatures often sacrifice themselves for others, which is seemingly “not fit.” In evolutionary jargon, fitness means one’s ability to reproduce and pass on one’s genes.

The answer to this evolutionary puzzle, Wilson says, is that altruistic and compassionate groups are favored by natural selection even if an altruistic or compassionate individual is not. He presents a case featuring water striders – the research conducted by his former student, Omar Tonsi Eldakar. Male water striders differ in their aggressive-ness toward females. Some, which Wilson described as “psychopathic,” mate with females without their consent. Some are what he calls “gentlemen” and will court a female before mating with her. When “psychopaths” and “gentlemen” are placed into separate environments in which there are females present, “psychopaths” are able to successfully find a mate at a much higher rate. But in an environment in which the females are mingling with both “psychopaths” and “gentlemen,” the ladies cluster around the “gentlemen” who protect them from the “psychopaths.” In this situation, the “gentlemen” are more successful at finding mates. Wilson concluded that the altruistic behavior in the “gentlemen” made them more successful at finding a mate. Even if they were compromising their ability to pass on their genes by waiting for the right girl, they were ultimately more successful than the “psychopaths” at finding her.

The water striders’ mating dynamics provide an example of the way in which nature favors altruism over aggression. Even though the two qualities co-exist to a degree, nature selects for the first. Perhaps this gives humans a practical justification for reaching out to others in society – it’s evolutionarily effective. But I believe that the “gentlemen” can teach us something about how to be compassionate and altruistic. 

I found the water striders to be particularly relevant to the experiences of many Stanford activists. It seems that there may be some self-interested, aggressive advocates among us that might be scaring our fellow students away. How can they expect others to answer their calls for equality, justice, and healing when they aren’t embracing compassion and altruism as the core of their work? At an Occupy the Future debrief session, students in my small group agreed that “activism” is seen as a turn off to many of our friends who eagerly embrace less radical extracurricular activities. The people we disparagingly call “apathetic” might just be frightened by our aggressive approach to selling our various causes. Moreover, we replicate destructive hierarchies within our student groups. We’ve all had experiences of feeling unwelcome or belittled at a VSO meeting. I know that in certain activist spaces, I’ve personally felt condemned for my religious beliefs, or embarrassed about my lack of academic fluency on a topic, or frustrated with egotistical and unkind student leaders. All these forms of violence put many well-intentioned Stanford activists on the wrong side of evolution. 

The problem is that we all think we are doing something altruistic – we defend causes and join movements that we believe will lead to progressive social change. Yet we don’t act in ways that embody compassion, empathy. We can’t be champions of public service and progressive chance if we aren’t serving one another with respect and dignity. If our interactions with others are aggressive like the “psychopathic” insects, we, as activists, may not be successful in attracting supporters and empowering them to effect change. We should all take a hint from the warmhearted water striders. When we shout and scream at folks passing by in White Plaza, create exclusive organizations that suppress the voices of members, and act like self-centered jerks, we risk alienating a plethora of potential advocates. We create unsustainable activist collectives that can and will be overthrown by the “gentlemen” among us.

So, what does an altruistic or compassionate activism look like? How do we change our culture so that we are not seen as aggressors? 

Wilson refers to altruism and compassion as prosocial forms of behavior – behavior that generally benefits a community. He discusses how humans, as a clustering species, constantly evaluate their environment and make decisions based upon response to environment. He argues that responding to challenges with prosocial behavior may be the answer to the question of whether humans will survive on Earth. He presented eight steps toward successful social control and maintenance of prosocial spaces (informed by the work of Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom on polycentric governance of complex economic systems):

1) Strong group identity and purpose (making sure everyone’s on the same page)
2) Proportional equivalence of costs and benefits (members of a collective contribute and receive benefits in equal amounts)
3) Consensus decision-making (goals are decided by the collective)
4) Monitoring (collective undergoes constant cycles of assessment, feedback, and adjustment if needed)
5) Sanctions and/or consequences for individuals who harm society (to prevent future disruptions)
6) Fast, fair conflict resolution (to avoid further complications or escalation of conflict)
7) Local autonomy (a collective can generate unique responses without the influence of other collectives)
8) Polycentric governance (the collective’s functionality relies on the quality of its interacting parts)

If you’re an activist, ask yourself, Do I consider any of these ideas in the way I maintain social control? If the answer is no, it’s time to get fit. It is not enough to be driven by a compassion for others — we must embody that compassion in the work that we do.  I hope that Wilson’s and Ostrom’s ideas can be put into practice by education reformers, community leaders, politicians, student activists, and others working toward progressive social change.


Jovel Queirolo is a sophomore from the San Francisco Bay Area hoping to major in Biology with a minor in education. She is interested in the intersections of the sciences and the humanities–particularly the patterns and themes that emerge and reoccur in both. Through reflection, public service, and activism she envisions a world invested in social healing and wellbeing.

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