"An important and timely message about the biological roots of human kindness."
—Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape
Are we our brothers' keepers? Do we have an instinct for compassion? Or are we, as is often assumed, only on earth to serve our own survival and interests? In this thought-provoking book, the acclaimed author of Our Inner Ape examines how empathy comes naturally to a great variety of animals, including humans.
By studying social behaviors in animals, such as bonding, the herd instinct, the forming of trusting alliances, expressions of consolation, and conflict resolution, Frans de Waal demonstrates that animals–and humans–are "preprogrammed to reach out." He has found that chimpanzees care for mates that are wounded by leopards, elephants offer "reassuring rumbles" to youngsters in distress, and dolphins support sick companions near the water's surface to prevent them from drowning. From day one humans have innate sensitivities to faces, bodies, and voices; we've been designed to feel for one another.
De Waal's theory runs counter to the assumption that humans are inherently selfish, which can be seen in the fields of politics, law, and finance, and whichseems to be evidenced by the current greed-driven stock market collapse. But he cites the public's outrage at the U.S. government's lack of empathy in the wake of Hurricane Katrina as a significant shift in perspective–one that helped Barack Obama become elected and ushered in what may well become an Age of Empathy. Through a better understanding of empathy's survival value in evolution, de Waal suggests, we can work together toward a more just society based on a more generous and accurate view of human nature.
Written in layman's prose with a wealth of anecdotes, wry humor, and incisive intelligence, The Age of Empathy is essential reading for our embattled times.
For more than a decade now, primatologist Frans De Waal has examined the evolutionary origins of morality among humans and other primates. In The Age of Empathy, he takes a more overtly political approach than in his previous works, though the foundations of his arguments are still deeply rooted in biology. Empathy, according to De Waal, is not only the foundation of ethics and morality but also an adaptation "as old as the mammalian line." It is not soft-hearted whimsy, it is a robust evolutionary trait that has ensured the longevity of our species.
Relying mostly on evidence not discussed in his previous works on the topic -- Peacemaking among Primates (1990), Good Natured (1997) -- De Waal demonstrates that all communal species exhibit an instinct to protect the weaker members of the herd. In animals with highly developed cognitive abilities, particularly apes, elephants, and dolphins, empathy is so highly developed that individual animals are capable of comprehending and accommodating the needs of others. They exhibit this behavior both in captivity and in the wild, even at times when they reap no immediate advantages in exchange for their sacrifices. While animals are most likely to engage in "altruistic" behavior toward individuals with whom they share blood ties or a strategic alliance, De Waal argues that the same is true of humans -- and though we are able to empathize with individuals we have never known, who may live halfway around the world, such "humane" acts are one manifestation in a spectrum of behaviors reflecting a biological truth: individuals within communal species generally benefit when everyone works together.
De Waal's vision of man as a communal animal does not jibe with the theoretical system of self-serving actors proposed by many economists and political scientists. Evolution, De Waal notes, is the "secret mistress" of the American Right. Heaven forbid the topic be taught in schools, but a distorted notion of how evolution works -- Social Darwinism -- underlies the ideological devotion to the efficiencies of the unfettered market. But politicians and scholars have often misunderstood human nature, according to De Waal. Rousseau acknowledged that his image of the noble savage (who sacrifices absolute freedom for the security of society) was a rhetorical device -- but it's still an inept metaphor for describing a species that evolved in a communal setting. De Waal prefers the lesson behind Rousseau's metaphor of the hare and the stag: sometimes there is more to be gained through cooperation than competition.
All of that said, De Waal has witnessed firsthand the brutality of darker instincts in primates, and he has long acknowledged that aggression and hierarchical structures are also adaptive responses to environmental pressures. What he really seeks to encourage with this book is a more an honest assessment of human nature -- one that will serve us all for the better. --Jennifer Curry