First cohort of Darwin Scholars to be chosen to produce the compassionate leaders of tomorrow
By Mohamed M Keshavjee, International cross-cultural specialist in mediation
At a ceremony held at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) on Wednesday, 17 October 2018, Dr Lynne Livesey, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic), announced the launch of the first Centre for the Study of Compassion in the UK. Located at UCLan, the new centre will support interdisciplinary research focused on any aspect of compassion in human life, as well as mentoring and the building of community resilience.
Drawing on the Charter of Compassion, pioneered by well-known historian of Comparative Religion, Karen Armstrong, and the theoretical work of Paul Gilbert, this new centre is the brainchild of UCLan and Professor Patrick Pietroni, who is the inaugural Elizabeth Bryan Chair in the Study of Compassion at UCLan, as well as the Director of the Elizabeth Bryan Foundation Trust and the Darwin Centre Trust.
The centre will focus initially on developing interdisciplinary research projects with colleagues across the university and beyond, providing support for new PhD students and more senior researchers. The centre also aims to help embed UCLan’s ambition to become a truly compassionate university, thus enriching the daily lives of students, staff and the community around its campus. Key research areas will include the role of compassion in health and wellbeing, compassion in education and organisations; mentoring and compassionate leadership, mediation and compassionate approaches to justice; and the role of compassion and cooperation in establishing sustainable communities.
Reminding the audience that UCLan was established in 1828, Dr Livesey highlighted that compassion was one of its founding principles. This ethos fits beautifully with the Darwin Centre Trust’s vision of helping to shape and nurture future leaders of compassion and demonstrates that UCLan is a natural home for the UK hub office of the Darwin International Institute for the Study of Compassion (DIISC), which is the operational arm of the Darwin Centre Trust.
Some may wonder where Charles Darwin fits into all of this. Contrary to popular belief, Darwin was not responsible for the glib shorthand of “survival of the fittest” which is so often applied to his theory of evolution in natural selection. In his three major works – On the Origin of Species, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, and The Descent of Man – it is possible to trace his understanding of the evolutionary nature of compassion and empathy, although he refers to these qualities in terms of “sympathy”, “moral actions” and “social instinct” in keeping with contemporary Victorian terminology. In many ways, Darwin’s position appears to reject the primacy of crass self-interest, focusing instead on a range of human emotions, including sympathy for others, including those beyond our family group or species. In The Descent of Man, Darwin wrote: “We are …impelled to relieve the sufferings of another, in order that our own painful feelings may be at the same time relieved. In like manner we are led to participate in the pleasure of others”.
In short, Darwin’s research suggests that humans have evolved to behave compassionately, or at least that we have the capacity to do so. Recent discoveries in neuroscience and neural-imaging support this biological basis for compassion, but it was Darwin who originally argued that “those communities which contained the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring”. In support of continuing Darwin’s legacy, his great–great-granddaughter, award-winning British poet, author and scholar, Professor Ruth Padel, is Patron of the Darwin Centre Trust.
Returning to UCLan, Professor Pietroni will lead the centre in his role as Elizabeth Bryan Chair in the Study of Compassion. The Elizabeth Bryan Foundation Trust (EBFT), a charitable trust founded in memory of the eminent paediatrician Elizabeth Bryan, whose pioneering work with families with twins or multiple births, brought together the best skills of medical practice with a profound commitment to the wellbeing of her patients and their families. Professor Pietroni’s career spans over 50 years, in the UK’s National Health Service, in private practice, and in academia. He has worked in the medical field in a number of countries, most notably the USA, Cuba, Singapore, Zambia and Bangladesh.
The establishment of the Centre for the Study of Compassion is one of the first steps in a journey that will span many generations. For several years now, Professor Pietroni has been visiting countries in different parts of the world, trying to understand how the notion of compassion, so prominent in all major religions, humanist organisations and among a growing body of scientists, plays out in practical action. Realising that the golden rule that one should treat others as one wishes to be treated oneself is both self-evident and universally accepted as the ethic of reciprocity, and yet evidence suggests that humans struggle to put compassion into action, even though we are unique among species in having the capacity and motivation to do so, Professor Pietroni is dedicated to collaboration with organisations, institutions and individuals who are equally committed to the vision of putting compassion into action.
This work is assisted by a dynamic board of trustees who bring a wealth of life experience and professional expertise to the management of the Darwin Centre Trust, and by extension its operational arm, the Darwin International Institute for the Study of Compassion (DIISC). DIISC is developing a growing international network of universities and other institutions that have agreed to host postgraduate researchers as Darwin Scholars, as part of DIISC’s Darwin Scholarship programme. The trust and the international office of DIISC are managed by a small team based in Shrewsbury, the birthplace of Charles Darwin, and new regional hubs have been opened at UCLan in the UK and the University of New Mexico in the USA. The DCT’s board of trustees is headed by Simon Pleydell, NHS Chief Executive, Councillor Karen Calder, Chair of Health and Wellbeing, Shropshire, Lawrence Bloom, Secretary General Be Earth Foundation and Chairman of Dakia Institute and Be Energy, Professor Rod Thomson, Director of Public Health in Shropshire, Tony Crundell Accountant, Community and Accounting Services and Dr Mohamed Keshavjee, International cross cultural specialist in mediation and advisor on mediation to the International Social Service of Switzerland. The DIISC management team in Shrewsbury is made up of Lee Good, Operational Manager, Dr Laura Noszlopy, Senior Researcher and John Ballatt, Developmental Director of DIISC and co-author of the book Intelligent Kindness: Reforming the Culture of Healthcare.
Since 2015, when the DCT was first established, through careful networking, effective advocacy, capacity verification, personal meetings with potential stakeholders, checking on the readiness of institutions to break down barriers and work in a collaborative interdisciplinary fashion, DCT has enlisted the support of 17 global institutions to embark on this journey, including the Harvard Medical School, Yellowstone Forever, The Independent University of Bangladesh, University of Westminster and Bangalore Hospice Trust in India.
Reflecting on the launch of the new centre at UCLan as an important milestone, Professor Pietroni stated “This is a marathon and not a sprint. I would much rather a large vision with small steps, than a small vision with large steps. Up until now, I felt like someone trying to pitch a tent at the edge of a precipice, working against a howling gale. Now the pegs have been staked and we can see the direction of where we are trying to go. The seeds we are planting now will germinate over a few generations but, hopefully, they will give rise to the future leaders of thought who will bring compassion back to the table at a time when humanity is facing some of its greatest moral challenges, with the onset of exponential technological growth, uncontrollable climate change and unbridled globalisation. These can be forces of positive change, but they have to be underpinned by the basic ethical values that are taught by all the great world traditions and values that make us human”.
For more information see https://diisc.org or https://www.uclan.ac.uk/research/explore/study-compassion.php
Professor Patrick Pietroni and John Ballatt of the Darwin Centre Trust and Darwin International Institute for the Study of Compassion discuss the role of compassion in improving mental and physical health. In conversation at the Ismaili Centre, London on 7 July 2016: https://the.ismaili/ru/knowledge-reflection/video-role-compassion-improving-physical-and-mental-health-london-0