Survival of the Kindest

Reviews by Eric Michael Johnson / September 24, 2009

In his new book, The Age of Empathy, Frans de Waal outlines an alternative to “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” Can a vision of a more empathic world change the way we behave toward each other?

In a fitting metaphor, the most recent experiment with social darwinism resulted in mass extinction. Former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling claimed he was inspired by Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene when he implemented a system known as “rank and yank” that sought to apply nature’s lessons to the energy industry. Skilling had all employees in the company ranked every six months. Then he offered lavish bonuses to the top 5 percent while the bottom 15 percent were relocated or fired.

This system of ruthless competition advanced just the type of personalities that one would expect: crazy people. As one Enron employee put it, “If I’m going to my boss’s office to talk about compensation, and if I step on some guy’s throat and that doubles it, then I’ll stomp on that guy’s throat.”

However, what was perhaps most disturbing is that according to Time magazine, 20 percent of US companies were following the same business model at the time of Enron’s collapse. Enron’s self-destruction was only the first in a nationwide trend. But what, if anything, does this say about nature?

In his latest book, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, primatologist Frans de Waal argues that social darwinists like Skilling have learned the wrong lessons about the natural world. The nasty, brutish existence dominated by “savage competition, ruthless exploitation, and deceit” that Dawkins describes is far from the norm for animals that live in social groups. They thrive because of the cooperation, conciliation, and, above all, the empathy that they display towards fellow members. The support and protection they receive from living in a group more than compensates for any selfish advantage they might have achieved on their own.

In other words, the “selfish gene” has discovered that the most successful approach is to behave unselfishly. De Waal thus argues that the age of empathy is far older than our own species and that we must keep this in mind as we try to apply these lessons ourselves.

The evolution of unselfish behavior has been one of the most controversial topics in the history of science. As early as the 1650s, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued that the natural world was a merciless struggle for survival. Only a strong, centralized government (in his eyes, the hereditary monarchy of King Charles I) could prevent the “dangerous disease” of democracy from plunging the nation into chaos. (Jeffrey Skilling would have been right at home in Hobbes’ worldview.)

In the years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, Thomas Henry Huxley, widely known as “Darwin’s bulldog,” endorsed Hobbes’ view of nature. Huxley claimed that natural selection was a “gladiator’s show” and a “Hobbesian war of each against all.” And until now, the only voice that promoted an alternative perspective was that of Russian naturalist Peter Kropotkin. His theory of mutual aid, ultimately rejected by evolutionary biologists of the time, has had to wait more than a hundred years to be reexamined.

If Dawkins is Huxley’s intellectual descendant, de Waal is certainly Kropotkin’s. Whereas Dawkins holds that biology will be of little help in building a just society, de Waal is less convinced that we are at war with our nature. Rather, he finds it odd that those instances of spontaneous altruism shown in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks or during the Katrina disaster could somehow be considered unnatural.

“Modern psychology and neuroscience fail to back these bleak views,” de Waal writes. “We’re preprogrammed to reach out. Empathy is an automated response over which we have limited control. We can suppress it, mentally block it, or fail to act on it, but except for a tiny percentage of humans—known as psychopaths—no one is emotionally immune to another’s situation.” Furthermore, many of these same characteristics can be found in the primates he’s studied for more than 20 years.

De Waal chronicles nearly a hundred cases of primates who have acted with the same kind of spontaneous generosity that was once thought exclusive to human beings. For example, the famous language-trained chimpanzee named Washoe once raced across two electric wires and braved a watery moat (which chimps are deathly afraid of) to save a drowning female.

In another case, Peony, an elderly chimpanzee who was incapacitated with arthritis, received water from younger females who collected it in their mouths and then spat it into hers. Then there’s the case of a four-year-old chimp that was close to choking after getting a rope wrapped around his neck. The oldest, most dominant male quickly ran over to the struggling youth and lifted him up with one hand before relieving the tension on the rope.

These examples seem to defy a natural world where kindness is ultimately self-serving. But while individual anecdotes are illuminating, they don’t count as evidence in a scientific argument. Fortunately, de Waal has amassed a vast compendium of peer-reviewed literature to support his position, some of which is reviewed in Michael Tomasello’s summary in the journal Nature. While de Waal doesn’t suggest an alternative framework for the evolution of empathy, his catalogue of studies and examples is a powerful antidote to that of Dawkins and the “tyranny of the selfish replicators.”

Dawkins’ perspective has been challenged, not just by the usual Christian agitators, but by biologists who don’t agree that it is an accurate picture of the natural world. SUNY–Binghampton evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson and Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson (no relation) have argued that altruism and cooperation can better be explained through multilevel selection (the idea that groups and not just individuals are important for success in the genetic game). Darwin first discussed this idea of group selection in his 1871 book The Descent of Man. Another approach has been that by Stanford biologist Joan Roughgarden whose recent book The Genial Gene proposes “social selection” as an alternative to the ruthless competitive drive for individual reproductive success.

The problem with individual selection, these critics point out, is not that it’s wrong but that it’s not the full story. Dawkins’ selfish gene is ultimately a metaphor about how genes transmit themselves to the next generation, but individual animals are not completely independent agents. Members of a group are embedded within a fabric of social relations—their actions can help or hurt the survival of all individuals collectively.

So, for example, when a lioness patrols and defends the territory of her pride, while free riders in her group are content to lounge in the sun, all members of the group ultimately benefit. A pride that consisted of only selfish individuals might allow a few cunning cats to succeed temporarily, but the group as a whole wouldn’t stand a chance. Greed may be good where it comes to personal advancement, as Gordon Gekko’s character in Wall Street insists, but when no one is minding the store the whole system can collapse. Or, as Wilson and Wilson famously wrote in The Quarterly Review of Biology: “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.”

In this same way, de Waal argues that the evolution of empathy is the end product of natural selection’s promotion of these altruistic groups. When chimpanzees help strangers attain food or when dolphins help to carry an injured comrade to safety, they are responding to an impulse that has allowed their ancestors to thrive throughout evolutionary history. “Social darwinists may disagree,” he writes, “but from a truly Darwinian perspective it is entirely logical to expect a ‘social motive’ in group-living animals, one that makes them strive for a well-functioning whole.”

Frans de Waal has emphasized an alternative to the bleak vision of our evolution and asks us all to reexamine what it means to be a primate. The reality is that other than bees and ants, primates are the most social order of the animal kingdom. De Waal’s work reveals that our evolutionary cousins show just as much of a capacity for empathy and altruism as they do for selfishness and greed.

We are the inheritors of these social skills from our primate forebears. By focusing exclusively on the selfish side of nature, are we not choosing to embrace the selfish side of ourselves? With the growing interconnection of peoples and economies on a planet faced with unprecedented dangers, the question of how best to work together for the common good is of profound practical importance. De Waal’s latest book has arrived not a minute too soon.

Eric Michael Johnson received his masters degree in primate behavior and is now pursuing his PhD in the history of science. He writes on issues of science, politics, and history at The Primate Diaries.