Review: The Age of Empathy

Scott Remer, Spring 2015

By: Scott Remer, PC ’16, for the Spring 2015 Issue (PDF version)

The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society

Frans de Waal

Harmony Books, 2009


4.5 out of 5 stars

Pretty much ever since The Origin of Species was published, the rich have used evolutionary theory as an argumentative battering ram to justify a society based on self-interest and ruthless competition. Friedrich Engels recognized the ease with which the biological facts of Darwinism could be twisted for political ends and once wrote the following in a letter:

The whole Darwinian teaching of the struggle for existence is simply a transference from society to living nature of Hobbes’ doctrine of bellum omnium contra omnes [the war of all against all] and of the bourgeois-economic doctrine together with Malthus’ theory of population. When this conjurer’s trick has been performed…the same theories are transferred back again from organic nature into history and it is now claimed that their validity as eternal laws of human society has been proved.

An understanding of the natural world as red in tooth and claw easily lends itself to a social Darwinist vision for society. Renowned primatologist Frans de Waal sets out to debunk both sides of this equation in The Age of Empathy. Drawing upon his own research and a growing body of evidence from other biologists, de Waal demonstrates that the picture of nature as a selfish, frenzied free-for-all that’s been foisted on us for so long by conservatives is scientifically unsound. In fact, as he convincingly argues, “empathy comes naturally to our species” (2), and he thinks that this has clear political ramifications.

Philosophers call the tendency to examine what is and act as if that determines what ought to be the “naturalistic fallacy.” De Waal is aware of the philosophical problems inherent in jumping across the is-ought gap, but he points out that, practically speaking, most political debates center on different views of human nature. It would be important to correct our view of nature simply as a matter of intellectual accuracy, but it’s doubly important to do so because we often do assume that the way things are illuminates the way they ought to be. De Waal sees no use in ignoring the advances we’ve made in biology in the realm of politics: “Why should we, in designing human society, act as if we’re oblivious to the characteristics of our species?” (30).

The traditional view of humans in a state of nature can roughly be reduced to Thomas Hobbes’ maxim Homo homini lupus (Man is wolf to his fellow man), which de Waal calls a “questionable statement” about humankind based on “false assumptions about another species” (4). Wolves are actually pack animals; our stereotype of the lone wolf is flat-out wrong. The theory of the social contract that Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Hobbes, and John Locke all broadly agreed upon—that humans existed as atomized individuals and then, after rationally calculating benefits and costs, decided to come together and create society—has no basis in science. We have always been group animals, descended from primates that lived together in interdependent groups (21), and our bodies and minds are “made for social life” (10).

For a long time, many scientists viewed all animals (including humans) as glorified machines and ignored our social and emotional nature. Psychologist John Watson’s behaviorist theories of childrearing cut emotion and physical interaction with caretakers out of the picture, which had disastrous results when his theories were put into practice in Romanian orphanages. Harry Harlow, another psychologist, had to painstakingly demonstrate what should’ve been obvious—that monkeys need contact with their moms to develop normally. Even scientists who didn’t deny the reality of human emotion put scare quotes around references to animals’ emotional displays.

De Waal surveys a wide variety of animal species and biological phenomena to show that human beings are continuous with the animal kingdom (especially our primate cousins) and that cooperation and solidarity are embedded in our evolutionary fiber. As de Waal nicely puts it, “People willfully suppress knowledge most have had since childhood, which is that animals have feelings and do care about others” (131). In contrast to the conventional misunderstanding of Richard Dawkins, genes aren’t selfish—they can certainly produce other-regarding behavior. In fact, de Waal argues that empathy is “an automated response” (43), necessary to hold groups together.

Both Darwin and Russian biologist (and anarchist) Peter Kropotkin posited that cooperative groups do better than uncooperative ones. Thus, we see groups of horses, oxen, and baboons acting in concert (in addition to chimps, bonobos, dolphins, elephants, and many more). Examples of social and prosocial behavior abound in nature: dolphins help their injured, elephants mourn their dead, bonobos avoid conflict through grooming and sex, and chimp and macaque communities have highly refined systems of conflict resolution. Our primate cousins instinctively imitate each other and exhibit emotional synchrony. We too learn by mimicking others, and synchrony plays a big role in human life. Yawns are contagious, as is laughter, and dancing, marching, and singing in unison are highly enjoyable activities that foster social connection.

After taking us on a pretty long detour into biology, de Waal turns us towards the political implications of what he’s been saying. An interesting experiment that he conducted with monkeys, cucumbers, and grapes (obviously more desirable than cucumbers!) found that monkeys have “inequity aversion”—they don’t like it when a fellow monkey is given a grape when they can only get a cucumber. Naturally, the lucky monkey doesn’t mind. Guess what? We’re like monkeys: we show “asymmetrical reactions to unfairness, always stronger in those who have less than in those who have more” (200). Unlike neoliberal economists’ absurd rational utility-maximizing model, which projects the selfishness of a minority of people onto everyone else, experiments show that most people are “altruistic, cooperative, sensitive to fairness, and oriented toward community goals” (162).

This is pretty unsurprising if you look at the anthropological record. In hunter-gatherer communities like those of the Bushmen, food and safety are valued above all else, and social connection and consensus are essential to maintaining the social fabric that enables such groups to survive. Social hierarchies are frowned upon in the hunter-gatherer communities that resemble the ones our ancestors lived in. Such communities “emphasize sharing and suppress distinctions of wealth and power”—in a sense, as de Waal phrases it, “We’re born revolutionaries” (161). At another point, he strikingly declares, “Robin Hood had it right. Humanity’s deepest wish is to spread the wealth” (200). You can much more easily construct an image of “highly cooperative, sensitive to injustice…mostly peace-loving” (5) Homo sapiens from biology than you can a Hobbesian image of selfish, warlike social Darwinists. It should be no surprise, then, that as de Waal observes, “Reliance on the profit principle has proven disastrous” (37). Capitalism clashes with many aspects of human nature.

In a sense, as de Waal phrases it, “We’re born revolutionaries.”

De Waal is, by his own admission, no radical. Even if he had the chance to play God and revise human psychology, he says, “I’d be reluctant to radically change the human condition.” The only thing he would do is “expand the range of fellow feeling” (203). But his message is that we don’t have to transform human nature in order to achieve the good society. We have all the tools that we need lying within us, waiting to be fully tapped. To function properly, society requires us to have sympathy, honesty, and a sense of community. As de Waal rightly points out, “A society based purely on selfish motives and market forces may produce wealth, yet it can’t produce the unity and mutual trust that make life worthwhile” (221). Our systems of empathy are ancient, the result of many millennia of evolution, and well-equipped to the task of maintaining civilization. We share emotional contagion (the ability to “catch” others’ emotions), consolation (the ability to comfort others), and targeted helping (the ability to take another being’s perspective and then offer them the kind of help we think they need) with our primate brothers and sisters, elephants, and dolphins.

It ultimately comes down to what de Waal calls the “old herd instinct that has kept animal societies together for millions of years” (223). If we liberate ourselves from the strictures of selfishness, we’ll let our true nature—as social animals, mammals programmed for group harmony— shine. Reactionaries would have us believe that a society based on kindness, compassion, and social connection is an idle fantasy which asks far too much of human nature. But as de Waal masterfully shows, it’s anything but.