INTERVIEW 8 October 2009

An Interview with Frans de Waal

Greg Ross

Are humans inherently selfish? Modern societies would seem to suggest so. The structure of our financial, legal and political lives pits us against one another, and a host of recent issues—the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the "gospel of greed" on Wall Street, our struggles to reform the U.S. health care system—seems to point up a lack of compassion in our culture.

In The Age of Empathy (Harmony Books, $25.99), primatologist Frans de Waal considers this trend from an evolutionary standpoint and finds evidence that empathy is in fact a valuable natural impulse, a legacy from our primate forebears. "Even though we live in cities and are surrounded by cars and computers," he writes, "we remain essentially the same animals with the same psychological wants and needs."

De Waal teaches psychology at Emory University and directs the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta. American Scientist Online managing editor Greg Ross interviewed him in September 2009.

What led you to write the book?

The evolution of empathy has been an interest of mine since my 1996 book Good Natured. Since then, so many studies have been conducted both by others and by my own team on human and animal empathy that it is getting hard to keep up. The field is blooming, especially in human neuroscience, but increasingly also with regard to animals. There are now empathy studies on mice, monkeys, apes, elephants, et cetera. Since the general public knows little about these developments, they beg to be summarized, which is what I have set out to do in this book, exploring the origins of empathy through all disciplines, from human psychology to animal behavior, and from brain imaging to the evolution of sociality.

My second reason is a bit more political. I can’t stand the many references to biology by conservatives in this country, especially by those who do not really believe in evolution. They use biology as a convenient justification for their policies, saying that since nature is based on a “struggle for life” we ought to build our societies around selfishness and competition. They read into nature what they want to, and I feel it is my task to point out that they got it all wrong. There are many animals that survive through cooperation, and our own species in particular comes from a long line of ancestors dependent on each other. Empathy and solidarity are bred into us, so that our society’s design ought to reflect this side of the human species, too. I have nothing against a market economy, but there is more to life than making money.

My sensitivity in this regard goes back to the early debates, in the 1960s and 70s, about the aggressive instinct. No one denies that humans are aggressive—in fact, I consider us one of the most aggressive primates—yet the recent discovery of the Ardipithecus fossil should make everyone who believes we are born “killer apes” think twice. Ardipithecus is believed to be close to the split between humans and apes, yet was probably less aggressive than the current chimpanzee. Perhaps Ardipithecus was more like our other close relative, the bonobo. All of the nonsense we have been fed about being inherently aggressive and being predestined to wage war is open to question if in fact we descend from a peaceful, hippie-like bonobo.

How do you define empathy?

The core of empathy is being in tune with others both emotionally and motorically. These two are less separate than one might think. Seeing a smiling face makes us smile. Seeing someone sad and frowning makes us frown. These motor responses feed into our emotions, so that imitation and empathy are in reality two sides of the same coin.

In psychology, there is often emphasis on the higher cognitive levels of empathy, which make us understand the other’s situation and put ourselves into their shoes. This is obviously important, especially for us, but without emotional engagement, we would not speak of empathy. [Financier and convicted fraudster] Bernie Madoff was also very good in putting himself into someone else’s situation, but since he did so in order to better exploit them, we wouldn’t call this empathy. Perspective-taking is a critical part of human empathy but is not sufficient: at the core of empathy is the capacity to be emotionally affected by others.

In many animals, the latter is all you will find, which means that their empathy is largely restricted to the emotions. However, in some large-brained species—apes, dolphins, elephants—we also find more complex forms. They try to figure out what is going on with others, and provide help that is intelligent and geared toward the other’s specific situation. My book gives many examples.

We've organized our economic and political life around the idea that competition brings the greatest good. Can empathy coexist with these ideals?

Of late, competition has not been particularly good at serving the greater good! We have lived in the illusion that market forces will take care of all of our needs, but even Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan had to recently admit that these forces are not to be trusted without regulation. Clearly, we cannot leave everything to the market.

Empathy with the downtrodden in society has given this country important institutions, such as Social Security and equal rights. These changes have not come about by means of market forces, but were based on what used to be known as “fellow feeling.” The French revolutionaries chanted of fraternité, Abraham Lincoln appealed to the bonds of sympathy, and Theodore Roosevelt glowingly spoke of fellow feeling as “the most important factor in producing a healthy political and social life.”

The ending of slavery is particularly instructive. On his trips to the south, Abraham Lincoln had seen shackled slaves, an imagine that kept haunting him, as he wrote to a friend. Such feelings motivated him and many others to fight slavery. One of the most potent weapons of the abolitionist movement were drawings of slave ships and their human cargo, which were disseminated to generate empathy and moral outrage.

In the current health-care debate, too, we respond strongly to the misery of people who have not been treated well or lost their insurance. All of these are basic human empathy responses, which play a major role in political debate.

Is it possible that empathy has survival value in the forest but that other considerations trump it in modern societies?

Empathy and solidarity have held human groups together for ages. Admittedly, these groups were small. In both animals and humans empathy is biased. It is always stronger for the in-group than the out-group, stronger for one's own family than for nonrelatives. These biases are not hard to explain in evolutionary terms and have also been found in animal studies.

For example, we conducted an experiment with capuchin monkeys in which they could choose between an option that rewarded themselves or one that rewarded themselves plus a neighbor sitting next to them. Guess which option they preferred? They went with the prosocial option even though it gave them no extra food: they were just happy to see another get food, we assume. But in the same study we also found that if they were paired with a monkey they didn’t know, their prosocial tendencies vanished, and they became quite selfish.

I think humans act the same, so that it is a real challenge to build societies of the size that we have. We still have the psychology of a primate that evolved in smaller groups, even though now we live among millions of strangers. In order to do so successfully we need to rely on a blend of old psychology that makes us empathize with others and an appeal to what is good for all of us. We need to consider the common good insofar as it helps ourselves. Certain goals are better achieved together than alone. For example, in the health-care debate, instead of appealing to empathy and morality, we also need to bring up selfish considerations. Which system brings the greatest service to the greatest number of people? If the quality of care that we receive ranks below that of dozens of other nations, and if these other nations spend less per capita than we do, there is an obvious argument that we’re not getting our money’s worth. This is a simple capitalist calculation, which has little to do with empathy.

What lies ahead for studies of human and animal empathy?

Until now, both psychologists and students of animal behavior have often focused on the pinnacles of cognition: do animals have theory of mind, do they have culture, how unique are humans compared to apes, how special are apes compared to, say, crows and dolphins? Aren’t crows at least as intelligent as chimps? It sounded like a competition: who is the smartest of them all?

But times are changing. Increasingly, we are looking for the roots of these phenomena, the building blocks. This is known as the bottom-up perspective. It asks how things work. What conditions does a mouse need to be sensitive to the emotions of others? Do monkeys show yawn contagion (which relates to empathy)? Are they attracted to synchrony? The recent study of monkeys preferring human experimenters who mimic them is a prime example of the sort of basic processes that we now study. It fits well with neuroscience, and also with evolutionary biology. Hopefully, we won’t get into silly contests anymore about species uniqueness. The grand theme of our time is Darwinian, which emphasizes continuity, including mental continuity between humans and other animals. Much research is moving into this more basic, fundamental directing, including research on empathy.