Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education was formed under the Stanford Institute for Neuro-Innovation and Translational Research at their School of Medicine.
Note the order. The Stanford School of Medicine. Under that, the Institute for Neuro-Innovation and Translational Research. Under that, the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (or, by apt acronym, CCARE). The founder and director of the CCARE is Dr. James Doty, a neurosurgeon.
Compassion and altruism have been discovered by science, or to be more accurate, they are now being treated as legitimate subject areas for research. What researchers have discovered—and this may seem a bit anti-climactic—is that compassion is measurably good for you. That is, according to Doty, "compassion not only stimulates one's pleasure (reward) centers but also leads to a decrease in biological markers of stress and an increase in indices of adaptive immune function." They have even discovered that, although there is some genetic predisposition for compassion, people can actually learn to be compassionate.
This is all good news. But it is also old news. While the nitty-gritty neurological and biological effects have only recently been discovered, the understanding that compassion is good is quite ancient. The folks at CCARE find their inspiration in Tibetan Buddhism's teachings on compassion, well-encapsulated in the Dalai Lama's words, "a warm heart, serving other people, helping others, respecting others, being less selfish."
But CCARE could have found the same in any of a number of ancient places. The admonition to be compassionate (or merciful, kind, helpful, loving, unselfish) is found throughout the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, and is part of a multitude of other ancient philosophical traditions as well. As C. S. Lewis noted in his Abolition of Man, that certain ethical precepts were universal, a sign that they were written into our very being by the Creator. He called these universal ethical principles The Way, after the name given in Taoism, but also noted the more familiar name to us in the west, the natural law, the moral law of our nature.
That science has just recently verified the reality and goodness of what has been almost universally declared to be real and good for well-neigh three thousand years is something well worth ruminating upon.
Let's begin with an obvious but exceedingly important point. Compassion was good all along. It was known to be good without hooking anyone up to an MRI, without the faintest idea of what a neuron is, without any notion of the brain's reward centers or biological stress markers or the immune system. It was understood to constitute our happiness and well-being long before we discovered the minutia of its beneficial neurological effects through modern science. The point: we human beings know things, real things, prior to and independently of modern science. To dismiss this kind of knowledge because it has not yet been scientifically verified is foolish (although such dismissal is all too common).
Following on this point, our pre-scientific knowledge is preeminently valuable. Or to be more exact, the words of wisdom handed down to us in stories, proverbs, and essays really are wise. They tell us real truths about human nature—what is good, what is evil, what is prudent, what is foolish, what constitutes our happiness, what will make us miserable—truths that are the result of long, hard-earned experience. Calling this knowledge "pre-scientific" has been a kind of code for "based upon ignorance, superstition, or wives' tales." Modern science, so the story goes, was to save us from ancient, pre-scientific darkness. But now it turns out that modern science itself is learning truth at the feet of ancient wisdom, and that a rich source for guiding future research would be investigating the wisdom of the past.
That means a kind of reversal of the typical secular story of salvation, where human beings measure their progress precisely from the very point in time that they rejected "pre-scientific" thought. To be modern is most often defined in terms of this break with the past. But we may be on the edge of redefining progress as a kind of respectful return to what we had long ago left behind as worthless. Like a wayward, upstart, know-it-all teenager who, growing a few years into his twenties suddenly discovers the wisdom of his parents, modern science may just be humble enough to admit that deep wisdom about human things, about our good, our happiness, has been available from our ancestors many, many centuries before the telescope, the microscope, modern medicine, and even the computer.
Imagine the kind of interesting change this could effect. Neuroscientists going through the Bible's Book of Proverbs as if it contained nuggets of gold for their future research. Psychologists combing through Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, or Thomas Aquinas to keep ahead of the latest insights into the wellbeing of the psyche. Perhaps even politicians might consider keeping up with the latest science.