Popularizers of evolutionary theory, from Huxley on, have tended to emphasize the idea of competition between and within species, of “nature red in tooth and claw.” Often, this emphasis on conflict and competition has been the means whereby evolutionary theory is enlisted in the cause of bourgeois ideology.

Starting with the “social Darwinism” of the 19th century, commentators on evolution have used the theory to explain why human beings must compete with each other, why the weakest must always go down, why those on top of the social order belong there and must stay there.

Another dimension is often missed, though it is certainly observed by zoologists and ethologists (specialists in animal behavior in its natural environment), namely the essential role of social groups and collectives in the survival strategies of a wide variety of species. From social insects to human beings, sociality (the capacity to coordinate one’s behavior with others of one’s species) is a vital evolutionary strategy.

It is not the same in all species, of course: I used to keep salamanders and other reptiles and amphibians as pets, and can attest that these cold-blooded creatures generally are interested in others of their own kind only in the mating season or, when there is a great disparity in size between two individuals, as food. But at least among crocodilians and probably among dinosaurs, also, there was the stirring of the most basic form of sociality, namely an instinctive urge to protect newborn young.

Among birds and mammals, this social tendency develops much further. Not only do virtually all known bird species take care of their eggs and hatchlings, they often mate for life, and male and female frequently cooperate in the raising of the young.

Among mammals, those which have big brains and have few young at a time, such as whales and elephants, frequently are highly social. Studies of elephant herds show a high degree of cooperative behavior, and such things as a tendency to help fellow herd members in distress (see Cynthia Moss, Elephant Memories, Thirteen Years in the Life of an Elephant Herd 1988, NY Fawcett Columbine – just one of many books and articles which document advance social behavior among African elephants).

And among the primates – the family of animals to which human beings belong – there is a great variety of forms of cooperative and mutually nurturing tendencies. A number of primatologists, most notably the Dutch scholar Franz de Waal, have concluded from this that the capacity for empathy is inherent and genetically transmitted in many primates, that this makes it possible for them to have cooperative social groups, and that primate survival depends on this.

In his popular book “Good Natured: The Origin of Right and Wrong Among Humans and Animals” (1996, Harvard University Press), deWaal makes a daring, but I think justified, leap and extends this inherited nature of empathy – otherwise known as the capacity of love – to human affairs. According to deWaal, if among chimpanzees, bonobos, rhesus monkeys, stump-tailed macaques, and a score of other monkey and ape species, there is an inherited capacity to feel another’s pain and to act in a socially cooperative way, it is only logical that similar capacities among human beings should also be seen as natural, or rooted in genetics and evolution, not a “merely cultural” characteristic.

The overall tendency of human evolution can be interpreted as an intensification of this general primate characteristic. From the first appearance of the hominid (creatures in the line of evolutionary development toward Homo sapiens) line, we see increasing capacity for cooperative social behavior. Certainly the evolution of capacity for language, which entailed development of specialized structures in the left hemisphere of the brain (Wernicke’s are that chooses vocabulary and Broca’s area that forms it into comprehensible utterances) can only be interpreted as illustrating a survival need for ever more intensive communication and cooperation among our pre-human ancestors.

Can we suggest that this represents nothing less than the evolutionary development of the capacity of human beings to love each other? That, after all, is what empathy is about. Certainly, our capacity to get angry and strike out at our own and other species has not gone away from the days of the dinosaurs, but the capacity for empathy/love is what is most strikingly distinctive about our own evolution or, if you like, our “human nature.” Whether the reader is a Christian, Muslim, Jew or Marxist, there will be agreement that the capacity for love is now more than ever essential for human survival, and this little expedition into the realm of biology and evolution strongly suggests that this is an inbuilt, genetically based capacity which played an essential role in make us into human beings.

So why don’t we make fullest use of it? Can we not conceive of a type of society, and a future for humankind, that is based on this capacity for love and cooperation that evolution has bequeathed us? Do we have such a society, one that makes maximum use of our capacity for love, today?

Emile Schepers has a Ph.D. in anthropology from Northwestern University. He can be reached at pww@pww.org