Los Angeles Times

'The Age of Empathy' by Frans de Waal

Dutch psychologist and primatologist Frans de Waal, using primate tendencies as a model, contends that humans are hard-wired for compassion.

By Sara Lippincott

September 20, 2009

The Age of Empathy

Frans de Waal

Harmony Books: 304 pp., $25.99

"Greed is out, empathy is in." So writes optimistic Dutch psychologist and primatologist Frans de Waal in the preface to his latest meditation on the similarities between apes and people.

"The Age of Empathy" might not strike you as the most accurate representation of a period in human history that will be remembered -- if we survive it -- for the War on Terror, nuclear wannabes, various genocides and looming Armageddon in the Middle East. But De Waal, perhaps sensing this, suggests an alternate reading: "Human empathy has the backing of a long evolutionary history -- which is the second meaning of 'age' in this book's title."

And it's the more interesting meaning for him. After a cheerful glance in the direction of the new administration ("Empathy is the grand theme of our time, as reflected in the speeches of Barack Obama") and good riddance to the old ("Many have felt as if they were waking up from a bad dream about a big casino where the people's money had been gambled away,"), he turns his attention to human evolution.

Chimpanzees share with us a common ancestry and an all-but-common supply of genes, so it's worth watching how they behave toward one another. In "Chimpanzee Politics" (1982), his bestselling first book, De Waal was chiefly concerned with the power games played by chimps in the Arnhem Zoo. "Aggression was my first topic of study," he admits. But the slaying of his favorite Arnhem chimp by two male chimps "opened my eyes to the value of peacemaking. . . ."

Over the years, De Waal has recorded many instances of ape empathy, even among the relatively bloodthirsty chimpanzees and particularly among the gentler bonobos. Like us, apes yawn when another yawns, return favors, bristle at the unfair distribution of goods and even kiss babies in pursuit of the top job: "[W]hen male chimps vie for high status, they . . . do the rounds with females, grooming them and tickling their offspring. Normally, male chimps are not particularly interested in the young, but when they need group support they can't stay away from them." This aperçu is accompanied by De Waal's sketch of a man closely resembling President George W. Bush hoisting a toddler aloft. ("Have you ever noticed how often politicians lift infants above the crowd? It's an odd way of handling them, not always enjoyed by the object of attention itself. But what good is a display that stays unnoticed?")

De Waal's principal thesis is that when contemplating our evolutionary heritage, we see ourselves more as natural-born competitors than natural-born empathizers and cooperators. "[U]ntil recently," he writes, "empathy was not taken seriously by science." Even with regards to our own species, it was considered an absurd, laughable topic. . . . " Some of us indeed have tended to think like Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase Darwin has been unfairly stuck with: "survival of the fittest." Indeed, some, like Hitler and the American and British eugenicists of the early 20th century, have tended to think that only the fittest ought to survive. But De Waal's readership is probably aware by now that altruism too has been built into the animal kingdom.

Nevertheless, he rightly argues that we modern humans need to recognize and cultivate our fellow feeling, "an innate age-old capacity" that has been naturally selected for -- for the excellent reason that without it we would have gone extinct long ago. "It's not as though we're asking our species to do anything foreign to it by building on the old herd instinct that has kept animal societies together for millions of years," he writes. "Every individual is connected to something larger than itself. . . . The connection is deeply felt and . . . no society can do without it."

De Waal bolsters his case with plentiful anecdotes of sweet-natured primates and contemporary examples of ill-advised human cold-bloodedness (Enron, the response to Hurricane Katrina). Along the way, you learn a lot of interesting primatological arcana, such as that apes can't swim and invariably defecate when excited. In concluding, De Waal points out that Adam Smith, the alpha male of free marketeers, has consistently been misunderstood. Smith's disciples "leave out an essential part of his thinking, which is far more congenial to the position I have taken throughout this book, namely, that reliance on greed as the driving force of society is bound to undermine its very fabric."

Lippincott is a freelance editor specializing in science.