The evolution of empathy | Less brutish, still short |
The evolution of empathy

Less brutish, still short
Sep 3rd 2009
From The Economist print edition

The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society. By Frans de Waal. Crown; 304 pages; $25.99 and £19.99.

EVERY day the world seems more like Aesop’s “Fables”. Rooks are found to use ingenious tools; dolphins are overheard talking to whales; and pigs, while not yet flying, play a passable game of football—at least according to the BBC. As for apes, they would hardly make headlines any more if they were found to be adept at composing limericks.

Frans de Waal, a primatologist in the psychology department of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, is perhaps best known for his studies of bonobos—the so-called “politically correct” apes who are somewhat feminist, often resolve disputes by making love instead of war, and with whom humans share as much of their DNA as they do with chimpanzees. His new book, “The Age of Empathy”, looks at altruism and sympathetic fellow-feeling in both humans and other animals.

His title has a double-meaning: empathy is both very old and freshly topical. It is as ancient as the entire mammalian line, he argues, engaging areas of the brain that developed in our distant ancestors over 100m years ago. And we are also entering a new age of empathy, he thinks, brought on by the financial crisis (the product of a selfishly oriented system), and marked by America’s election of President Barack Obama, who has re-emphasised the importance of compassion and helping one’s neighbour.

The book is a polemic, and its main target is what Mr de Waal takes to be a distorted idea of human life as relentlessly selfish and ruthlessly competitive. As an antidote to this picture, he offers plenty of evidence of apparently selfless sacrifice, unforced sympathy, co-operation and even a keen sense of fairness in our closest animal relatives, who evolved to reap the benefits of mutual aid. In other words, his answer to Thomas Hobbes’s famously gloomy statement that man’s existence tends to be “nasty, brutish and short” is, in effect, that it is unfair to brutes. Beasts are not actually all that beastly, and so we need not be either. Nature does not force us to be selfish.

But what exactly is the moral relevance of empathy and altruism in non-human animals? Ethicists have a name for the confused idea that moral conclusions can be deduced from scientific evidence: they call it the “naturalistic fallacy”, and it cuts two ways. If it is a mistake to justify human selfishness on the basis of the alleged selfishness of nature (as one strain of “Social Darwinism” tried to do in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and some right-wing columnists do now), then it is equally mistaken to espouse altruism merely on the basis that chimps can be assiduous at sharing food and at being good buddies to one another.

On the whole, it appears that Mr de Waal appreciates this point. “The Age of Empathy” is best seen as a corrective to the idea that all animals—human and otherwise—are selfish and unfeeling to the core. It offers not only plenty of examples to the contrary, but also some hints as to how and why empathy evolved, and how it might be related to self-awareness. In the case of humans, one might think that it is hardly necessary to get the professional opinion of a zoologist on the matter. Don’t we already know that people can be rather good at co-operating, and are not always mercilessly hostile towards their rivals? Yet Mr de Waal does manage to spring some pleasing and intriguing surprises on this score: how many people are aware, for example, that most soldiers are unwilling to fire at the enemy, even in battle? On the other hand, politics can be a much bloodier battleground than war, as any advocate of a “kinder society” soon finds out.

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