Frans de Waal and The Age of Empathy

I’m half-way through Frans de Waal’s The Age of Empathy.  He highlights natural tendencies towards empathy rather than self-interest, not only in primates but in other animals.  Human nature and the “nature” of other species is more complex than the “selfish” gene:

“we are group animals:  highly cooperative, sensitive to injustice, sometimes warmongering but mostly peace loving.  A society that ignores these tendencies can’t be optimal… there is both a selfish and social side to our species.  But since the latter is, at least in the West, the dominant assumption, my focus will be on the former:  the role of empathy and social connectedness”.  (p.5)

This was also the focus of my thesis, to emphasise this potential (often lying dormant) in how we relate to other beings.  Economic paradigms (based on self-interest and competition)  influence and limit human interactions on many levels and can stifle our empathetic side.  This is explained well by de Waal:

“economists prefer to imagine a hypothetical world driven by market forces and rational choice rooted in self-interest.  This world does fit some members of the human race…In most experiments, however, such people are in the minority.  We obviously have a problem if assumptions are out of whack with actual human behavior.  The danger of thinking that we are nothing but calculating opportunists is that it pushes us precisely toward such behavior.”  (p. 162)

de Waal challenges the notion that selfishness is ultimately behind altruism (this is how sociobiology explains away altruism), an important point to make:

“Offering assistance to others evolved to serve self-interest, which it does if aimed at close relatives or group mates willing to return the favor. .. But this doesn’t mean that humans or animals only help each other for selfish reasons.  The reasons relevant for evolution don’t necessarily restrict the actor.  The actor follows an existing tendency, sometimes doing so even if there’s absolutely nothing to be gained.” (p. 42)

This tendency towards helping others can be seen in many other species as well.  de Waal provides examples particulary in primate species.  He also systematically builds an argument to prove that there is significant evidence of empathy expressed by primates such as chimpanzees and bonobos, but also by animals such as elephants and cetaceans.   He describes how chimpanzees show synchronization and mood transmission, a key element of empathy:

“Sometimes, a mother ape returns to a whimpering youngster who is unable to cross the gap between two trees.  The mother first swings her own tree toward the one the youngster is trapped in, and then drapes her body between both trees as a bridge.  This goes beyond mere movement coordination. It’s problem-solving.  The female is emotionally engaged (mother apes often whimper as soon as they hear their offspring doing so).”  (p. 50)

Chimpanzees and other apes can emotionally identify with others. And there is evidence that this identification occurs in a range of species (not just primates).

Frans de Waal’s Facebook Page


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