The Age of Empathy Corrects Prevailing Notions About Human Behavior

by Gary Olson

The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons For A Kinder Society
Harmony, 2009
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De Waal is painfully aware that biology has been routinely and willfully misinterpreted “to justify a society based on selfish principles.”

The next time you find yourself in a contentious conversation with someone who’s arguing that humans are inherently selfish, embrace killing and war, and (mis) using terms like “Social Darwinism,” give them a copy of Frans de Waal’s latest book, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons For A Kinder Society (Harmony, 2009). Only continue the discussion after they’ve read it.

A world-renowned primatologist, de Waal provides compelling support for the proposition that humans are “preprogrammed to reach out.” From dolphins ferrying injured companions to safety and grieving elephants, baboons and cats (yes, even cats) to commiserating mice and hydrophobic chimps risking death to save a drowning companion, this is a major contribution to understanding the biological genesis of our inborn capacity for empathy, hence morality.

One of this book’s merits is its smooth synthesis of anecdotes gleaned from the author’s decades-long observation of primate behavior and convincing evidence from the rapidly expanding scientific literature on this subject. And I wouldn't be surprised if de Waal's stories prompt a few revivifying smiles of recognition as the reader re-connects with a shared ancestry and its contemporary progeny.

This work complements recent research from neuroscience (see Marco Iacaboni’s Mirroring People, 2008) and the subfields of neuroanthropology, cultural neuroscience, neuropolitics and others. Taken as a whole, it’s a potent mix and provides a convincing corrective to prevailing notions about human nature. For de Waal, as for many students of this subject, the question is no longer whether animals have empathy "but how it works...My suspicion is that it works exactly the same way in humans and other animals, even though humans may add a few complexities."

De Waal is painfully aware that biology has been routinely and willfully misinterpreted “to justify a society based on selfish principles” and he sets out to correct this one-sided and erroneous portrayal by examining the lengthy evolutionary record. This, by the way, is the other meaning of "age" in the book’s title.

In seven crisply written and wholly accessible chapters de Waal methodically demolishes the rationale behind Gordon Gekko’s admonition in the film "Wall Street" that greed “captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.”

De Waal puts it this way:

What we need is a complete overhaul of assumptions about human nature. Too many economists and politicians model society on the perpetual struggle they believe exists in nature, but which is a mere projection. Like magicians, they first throw their ideological prejudices into the hat of nature, then pull them out by their ears to show how much nature agrees with them. It’s a trick for which we have fallen for too long.

De Waal is to be commended for introducing political questions into his analysis, saying, “If this means wading right into political controversy, so be it.” However, this is precisely where I began to encounter some problems.

Namely, how does de Waal explain what I’ve characterized elsewhere as a culturally-induced empathy deficit disorder, a condition bordering on the pathological and having its roots in our socioeconomic system? In a 2007 interview, not included in this book, de Waal said, “You need to indoctrinate empathy out of people in order to arrive at extreme capitalist positions.” Unless I’ve totally misread him, the operative word there is “extreme,” as there’s nothing in de Waal’s public writings, inteviews, or lectures to indicate that he’s personally opposed to capitalism, people getting rich, and so forth. De Waal objects to an unrestrained market system, not capitalism itself. He prefers that the economic system be mitigated by more attention to empathy in order to soften its rough edges.

At one point he proclaims his sympathy for American conservatives “who detest entitlement,” while going on to assert that “The state is not a teat from which one can squeeze milk from any time of the day, yet that’s how many Europeans seem to look at it.”

As a Dutch immigrant, de Waal arrived in the United States with the following mindset: “But I also noticed that someone who applies him- or herself, as I surely intended to do, can go very far. Nothing stands in their way.”

He follows this by a comparison with European welfare states and concludes, "Having lived for so long in the United States I find it hard to say which system I prefer. I see the pros and cons of both." But de Waal can also write sentences such as:

People without mercy or morals are all around us, often in prominent positions. These snakes in suits, as one book title labels them, may represent a small percentage of the population, but they thrive in an economic system that rewards ruthlessness....

A society based purely on selfish motives and market forces may produce wealth, but it can?t produce the unity and mutual trust that makes life worthwhile... on greed as the driving force of society is bound to undermine its very fabric.

The author seriously underestimates certain capitalist imperatives and the role played by elites in cultivating callousness, thereby undermining social solidarity, reciprocity and empathy.

Nevertheless, de Waal seriously underestimates certain capitalist imperatives and the role played by elites in cultivating callousness, thereby undermining social solidarity, reciprocity and empathy. Capitalist culture devalues an empathic disposition, and, as Erich Fromm argued some fifty years ago, there is a basic incompatibility between the underlying principles of capitalism and the lived expression of an ethos of empathy.

As Antonio Gramsci insisted, culture is inextricably bound up in class, power and inequality. Consensual control is realized through mass media, education, religion, popular culture and other facets of civil society in concert with the state.

In sum, one need not accept de Waal’s sometimes ambivalent attitude toward the market, his warm words for so-called “economic freedom” and “incentive structures,” his gloss on a presumed U.S. merit-based system or his sanguine view of Obama’s potential to usher in a new era of cooperation, in order to appreciate the book's major contributions.

Without question, de Waal’s essential findings should become part of mainstream conversation. But we need to go further by joining them with a radical political analysis, one that spells out the cultural mechanisms that give rise to an empathy-deficient society. Only then can we reclaim the continuity of morality that emerges so eloquently from these pages.

As with de Waal’s previous prolific output, this book can contribute to de-legitimizing a central system-maintenance ideological tenet of U.S. civil society, namely the “common sense” narrative of hyper-individualism with all its insidious consequences.

Gary Olson, Ph.D., chairs the Political Science Department at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. His recent articles have appeared in Common Dreams, Zmagazine, Znet, Dissident Voice,, baltimorechronicle, and For the past few years he’s been writing on the neuropolitics of empathy. Contact: This article was originally published by ZNet on Oct. 13, 2009, and is republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.