Sept/Oct/Nov 2009

Thanking The Monkey

Edward Dolnick

As the men with the knives dragged the thieves, the crowd jostled for a better view. Minutes later, four young men lay bleeding, each without his right hand and left leg. Some of the onlookers collapsed in fear. Others cheered. This was in June, in Somalia, as reported in the New York Times.

No surprise there, many would say—nothing but one more dismal demonstration of humankind’s worst impulses. “Man is a wolf to man,” Thomas Hobbes declared three centuries ago, and the sentiment was old then. But in his remarkable new book, The Age of Empathy, Frans de Waal contends that Hobbes managed to malign both animals and human beings in the same breath.

Humans are social animals, de Waal observes, and natural selection has shaped us to cooperate, share, and empathize as well as to compete, fight, and maim. The same holds for chimps and gorillas—and wolves. “Don’t believe anyone who says that since nature is based on a struggle for life, we need to live like this as well,” writes de Waal. “Many animals survive not by eliminating each other or keeping everything for themselves, but by cooperating and sharing.”

De Waal has two big goals in his compact book. One is to counter the argument that “every man for himself” is a law of nature. Economists and political thinkers, proclaiming themselves the spokesmen for clear-eyed realism, long ago took a horrified look at the natural world and declared that it is a jungle out there. Competition is ruthless and perpetual, and animals are gladiators with claws and fangs.

This is half the picture, de Waal concedes, but only the half that everyone already knows. He reviews, briefly, grim accounts of chimpanzees killing their own kind and suchlike, but dwells at much greater length on less familiar findings. We read, for instance, of chimps in a national park in Ivory Coast attacked by leopards and then limping off, wounded and bloody but struggling along together, echoing the fortitude of the injured soldiers in Archibald Willard’s Spirit of ’76.

De Waal’s second goal is broader. He aims to demonstrate not only that animals are empathetic but also that we humans are the way we are because they are the way they are. Natural selection shaped our minds as well as our bodies. Empathy is an ancient part of our heritage, and like nearly everything else in the animal kingdom, it comes in different grades across species. Chimps console one another when a baby dies, for example, but monkeys don’t. Their levels of stress hormones rise—something isn’t right—but “every monkey lives in its own little bubble.”

De Waal, a renowned primatologist, knows the territory firsthand. He writes clearly and plays fair; he takes on the strongest arguments against him and is quick to acknowledge complexity. His book is popular science as it should be, far superior to the recent spate of “Darwin made me do it” books that purport to explain (or explain away) our behavior. Why do we tear up when an actor in a made-up story finally gets the girl? Why do we coo at babies (not just our own) and send checks to tsunami victims we’ll never meet? “We evolved to be this way because, on average and in the long run, it served our ancestors.”

It served our ancestors to care about their own families and children, not actors or faceless strangers. But we feel empathy even so, de Waal argues, because a trait that originally evolved for reason x may find itself used today for reasons x, y, and z. People crave sex even if they have no interest in reproduction. Parents dote on their offspring, in accord with perfectly sensible evolutionary mandates, and that devotion spills over to adopted children and even to family pets. People do jump onto railroad tracks to save strangers from onrushing trains.

At the same time, de Waal readily concedes that natural behavior is not all cheery. Baboons, for instance, seem to have the rudiments of fellow feeling but not much more than that. Young baboons don’t like crossing water. Adults plunge in. Researchers in Botswana watched youngsters cowering on a riverbank, screaming in panic for their mothers on the far shore to rescue them. The mothers seemed bothered by the screaming, a bit, but they rarely turned back.

Many of the findings involve de Waal’s own research. He tells, for example, of capuchin monkeys who learned they could trade markers for food. What would they pick when given a choice between a marker that brought a treat and a marker that brought a treat and one for a nearby capuchin? (The monkeys opted for sharing. But put the second monkey on the other side of a partition and he’s yesterday’s news, even if the two monkeys are old pals and the partition has a peephole.)

Empathy, then, but only so much of it. Humans do better—“our species is special in the degree to which it puts itself into another’s shoes,” de Waal writes—but the difference is one of degree, not of kind. De Waal tries gamely to draw some political conclusions about how we might do better still by tempering our American focus on individuality with some European notions of community, but his heart isn’t in it. His enthusiasm rises again when he turns from political communities back to biological ones. “We start out postulating sharp boundaries, such as between humans and apes, or between apes and monkeys,” he writes, “but are in fact dealing with sand castles that lose much of their structure when the sea of knowledge washes over them. They turn into hills, leveled ever more, until we are back to where evolutionary theory always leads us: a gently sloping beach.” For better or worse, we’re all in this together.

Edward Dolnick is a former science writer for the Boston Globe and the author, most recently, of The Forger’s Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century (Harper, 2008).