The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society Hardcover – Sep 22 2009
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“As nature writers go, de Waal is among the most accomplished. . . . an excellent tour guide, refreshingly literate outside his field, deft at stitching bits of philosophy and anthropology into the narrative. He is also pleasingly opinionated.”
— Globe and Mail
"Freshly topical . . . . a corrective to the idea that all animals — human and otherwise — are selfish and unfeeling to the core."
— The Economist
"The lessons of the economic meltdown, Hurricane Katrina, and other disasters may not be what you think: Biologically, humans are not selfish animals. For that matter, neither are animals, writes the engaging Frans de Waal … The Age of Empathy offers advice to cutthroat so-called realists: Listen to your inner ape."
— O, The Oprah Magazine
“An important and timely message about the biological roots of human kindness.”
— Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape
"[De Waal] culls an astounding volume of research…. fascinating."
— Publishers Weekly
"An appealing celebration of our better nature."
— Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
Frans de Waal is a world-renowned primatologist based in Atlanta, Georgia. Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Award, he has written eight books and his work has been translated into fourteen languages. In 2007, Time magazine called him one of the 100 World’s Most Influential People.See all Product Description
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Dr. Rodrigue Tremblay is the author of the coming book 'The Code for Global Ethics, Ten Humanist Principles' (Prometheus Books), March 2010.
It is a complex world, and emotions are reflective on the very nature of this evolving world.
Taken to heart, anyone can cope and learn to grow towards a better, safer place to live and learn.
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In short, we are NOT condemned by nature to treat each other badly. Rather, there is a much different and much pervasive aspect regarding the kind of animal we humans have evolved to be. We are highly groupish, often peace-loving beings who are well-tuned to look out for each other. Not that we always do this well, but there is plenty of reason to conclude that we are highly social in an empathetic way. In this book, De Waal accomplishes his goals with reference to ample evidence from human history and with meticulous observations and social experiments regarding our primate cousins.
Keep this book handy for the next time someone claims that they don't need to care about people who are struggling to make it "because that's the way of nature." This approach to life is a cop-out; it is certainly not justified by Darwin's work.
The evidence for de Waal's model of human, monkey, and ape nature is a combination of anecdote (as in other de Waal books) and controlled laboratory experiment. The latter element is of course central, because people have been speculating about human and animal nature for centuries without even approaching a consensus. The major implication of this research for humans, which uses behavioral game theory and experimental economics, is that we now know with almost perfect certainty that humans are not the selfish sociopaths of traditional economics and sociobiology, but rather are motivated by a complex mix of self-regarding, other-regarding and fundamentally moral objectives. De Waal goes through this evidence enough to make his point, without becoming bogged down in the sort of detail that is of critical importance for experts in the field, but boring for the general reader. What is new in this book is a similar emphasis on controlled laboratory research on non-human primate "nature." His conclusion is that primates, as expected from elementary evolutionary biology, exhibit in rudimentary form, the same mixture of selfish and prosocial behaviors as found in humans.
One of the neuroscientific developments that I learned for the first time from this book is the relationship between Von Economo neurons (VEN cells) and what de Waal calls the "co-emergence hypothesis." This hypothesis holds that self-awareness (e.g., recognizing oneself in a mirror) and empathy (recognizing feelings in others) co-emerged in several mammal species, including humans, some apes, dolphins, whales, and elephants. The new fact is that VEN cells, which are long, spindle-like neurons that reach deep into the brain, connecting cortex to the more primitive parts of the brain, have been found in these, and only these, animals!
It is popular these days to treat the results of behavioral game theory as providing a fatal critique of economic theory and a shining endorsement of evolutionary biology. This is certainly not the case, and de Waal treatment in this book is balanced and accurate. In fact, the whole methodology of behavioral game theory is based on the economist's rational actor model, simply dropping the ancient prejudice that rationality implies selfishness. Indeed, it is my experience that economists have no problem embracing the fact that people have altruistic motives, whereas evolutionary biologists just can't seem to digest the idea that nature, red in tooth and claw, could ever produce a truly moral creature.
How natural selection, involving survival of the fittest, could produce morality, has been another major research question of the past two decades, and de Waal ably describes the basics of this research. Primates, including humans, are fundamentally social creatures who have developed behaviors and intentions that are costly to the individual but highly useful to the group. Groups that have many individuals who exhibit such prosocial behaviors simply do better than those that lack them, so they expand over time at the expense of groups composed of highly selfish individuals. There is endless debate among population biologists as to whether this dynamic is based on gene selection, individual selection, or group selection, but the issue is of limited importance, as compared with the fact that human nature, and more generally primate nature, is a complex intermixture of prosociality and selfishness.
While the implications of the research on humans is relatively clear and the interpretation given above widely shared (except for biologists who just can't bring themselves to believe that any critter could really be anything other than completely selfish, and a few other stragglers that have a political bone to pick), the same is not true for the interpretation of games played by non-humans. There are been extremely prominent primate researchers who have found non-human primates completely devoid of prosociality in the laboratory, while de Waal argues that this finding is due to placing non-human primate subjects in situations that they simply do not comprehend, and in situations that they do understand, they exhibit human prosocial behaviors in rudimentary form. Sometimes de Waal's argument is directly contradictory with well-known results in the literature, and we will just have to wait for the experts to come to agreement. I suspect that we will learn a lot about primate epistemology in the process.
This book is full of simple statements that are deeply insightful, and yet are completely incompatible with the received wisdom in various academic disciplines (I should warn the reader that I believe that the extreme parochialism of the behavioral disciplines is the major impediment of our time in understanding social behavior). Here is one of my favorites: "Instead of each individual independently weighing the pros and cons of his or her own actions, we occupy nodes within a tight network that connects all of us in both body and mind." (p. 63) By contrast, imitation is virtually unnoticed as a form of rational behavior in standard decision theory.
De Waal's political philosophy flows rather neatly from his analysis of human nature. De Waal is most hostile to the philosophy of material acquisitiveness and hard-nosed distain for the less well off, perfectly exhibited by the famous speech by Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street. "The point is, ladies and gentleman," Gekko announces, "that greed -- for lack of a better word -- is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms -- greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge -- has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed -- you mark my words -- will ... save ... that ... malfunctioning corporation called the USA." De Waal's point is not that material acquisition is not part of human nature, but rather it is only one facet of human nature, and if it appears in hypertrophied form unaccompanied by the empathetic side of human nature, the results for society are likely to be disastrous. Referring to the Gekko sentiment, de Waal says "...this is only half the truth. It misses by a mile the intensely social nature of our species. Empathy is part of our evolution, and not just a recent part, but an innate, age-old capacity." (p. 205)
De Waal's political philosophy, at its core, suggests that the twin models of man as acquisitive dominator and empathetic cooperator are both quite accurate, but they must be merged to forge a healthy society. "Both Europe and the United States pay a steep price, albeit different ones," he asserts, "for stressing one fairness ideal at the expense of the other....it is a false choice: it's not as though both fairness ideals couldn't be combined." (p. 198)
I only found one statement of de Waal's that I found questionable. "A society based purely on selfish motives and market forces," he says, "may produce wealth, yet it can't produce the unity and mutual trust that make life worthwhile." (p.221) I doubt very much that a society based purely on selfish motives could produce wealth, or indeed anything other than lives that are poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
De Waal presents the evidence from studies of animal behavior, mostly of primates, to demonstrate that certain non-human species experience positive social emotions that suggest concern for others. At least some of what he reports will not be new to many readers, but his coverage is relatively comprehensive and he is one of those accomplished scientists whose journalistic writing style is easy to absorb, at times even lively (an example: "... all that science seems to have learned from chatting `dolphinese' with [dolphins] is that lone male dolphins are keenly interested in female researchers").
De Waal offers an overall framework that is helpful in promoting an understanding of just what it is animals are experiencing when we see them behave socially, but unfortunately his best picture of it does not appear until after more than 200 pages. The picture is one of nested Russian dolls, with the inner doll representing state-matching (emotional contagion) at the most basic level, stepped up to concern for others (consolation) in the middle doll, then escalating to the perspective-taking (targeted helping) represented by the largest outer doll.
Many animals are capable of synchrony and mimicry, doing as others do, perhaps involuntarily, just as we often do when we see others yawn, for example. Certain species, a smaller group, seem to recognize that others may have intentions similar to their own (jays often act as if they expect other jays to steal their hidden food). Others, including monkeys and rats, have been observed reacting to the grief or pain of their fellow creatures, but it could be just self-protection (for example, turning away). Few species, however, have been convincingly shown to exhibit targeted helping, such as when chimps console companions who have been involved in a fight. De Waal believes that some, notably chimps and dolphins, have even risen to the level of altruism, helping others at some risk to themselves (he gives examples).
Sympathy requires more than empathy, de Waal suggests, since it is not automatic; it requires the actor not only to sense the feelings of another, but also to take action to help alleviate the other's plight. Monkeys seem to feel the distress of others, he thinks, but they may lack the cognitive capacity to figure out the others' needs well enough so that they might meaningfully intervene.
Some of the differences in sympathetic capabilities across species may be associated with what de Waal calls the "co-emergence" of sympathy and a sense of self. When human children are tested for their ability to recognize themselves in a mirror the age threshold of success lines up with their tendency to begin to act pro-socially. De Waal extrapolates this theory to certain other animals. He points to a possible neurological basis, Von Economo neurons (VEN), which appear in only human and ape brains (although he allows elephants and dolphins into the sympathy club, as well).
De Waal addresses animals' reciprocity behaviors and possible sense of social equity. In one of his more notable experiments, a monkey refused to cooperate when given a cucumber instead of the (more desirable) grapes the researcher handed its companion, although if both monkeys got cucumbers both continued to cooperate. De Waal says this reaction shows an "inequity aversion," not the same thing as a "fairness norm." To demonstrate the fairness norm a monkey would have to show displeasure when some other monkey, not himself, was slighted.
De Waal's larger point in all of this is to underscore that humans' positive social emotions did not emerge ex nihilo, independent of our primate ancestors. He recognizes, of course, that neither humans nor other primates are purely either competitive or cooperative, that both are both social and selfish. These conclusions seem obvious enough, but perhaps there are some who must be convinced. If so, The Age of Empathy should do the job.