Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

We can thank chimps for our inherited sense of empathy

The Age of Empathy

Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society

By Frans de Waal

McClelland & Stewart, 320 pages, $33

The experience of reading this latest book by Dutch-born primatologist Frans de Waal is like listening to a friend or co-worker go on and on about their pets.

The first anecdote or two can be amusing, hilarious even. But after that, it becomes a challenge to stay enthused and focused.

Organized into seven chapters, each of which might easily stand on its own as a speech or magazine article, de Waal's thesis is, however, a timely one: that humans are naturally empathetic creatures and that it makes evolutionary sense for us to be this way.

U.S. President Barack Obama should read this book. It will steel his resolve on health-care reform. That is, if he can sort through the swirl of economic, philosophic, animal behaviour and sometimes personal anecdotes spun together in each subsection of each chapter.

De Waal, who has written several other books to support his belief that humans are not much different from other apes, substantiates his arguments with myriad tales from his own research at Emory University in Georgia and at the San Diego Zoo, and the work of others who study animal behaviour.

He argues that we can look at our closest relatives (chimpanzees and bonobos) as well as other large-brained mammals (such as elephants) for evidence that we are the inheritors of an evolutionarily advantageous sense of fairness and concern for others. This is exemplified in our sharing of resources and offering of assistance to those in need.

This biological-evolutionary "fellow-feeling" is set up in opposition to the argument that human societies are inevitably driven by the imperative of the "survival of the fittest," consumed by individualism, greed and fierce competition.

In the end, de Waal appears to make the point that we are as much our brother's keeper as we are his competitor.

After the recent excesses of banking scandals, credit collapses and a multitude of CEO transgressions, and the ongoing suffering associated with economies in (deep) recession, this book calls for the realization of a fuller, more nuanced understanding of human nature.

But while the book is highly readable thanks to its conversational tone, de Waal's writing style, much like those endless pet stories, may well leave you looking for an exit, or at least the end of the chapter.

He mixes his examples of animal behaviour with economic and philosophic ideas that are sometimes well-documented and thought-provoking.

At other times, not so much. You may need to read sections several times to follow the connections between, for example, emotional contagion in monkeys, emotional sensitivity in humans, and a critique of the contemporary economic meltdown in the U.S.

De Waal intersperses his own drawings throughout to illustrate specific points. But they add no credence to his arguments; certainly they do not have the credibility of photographs.

Great optimism for the future may be drawn from the evidence de Waal presents of the great evolutionary antiquity of empathy.

It is empathy that will create economic and political systems that care for the sick and elderly, that work to alleviate poverty and that create more just societies.

But de Waal weakens his case with too many anecdotes and dubious connections between fields of knowledge.


Bonnie Hallman is a geography professor at the University of Manitoba. One area of her research focuses on zoos as cultural landscapes.

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