Empathy’s origins

Book Review: The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society by Frans de Waal

Price: US$17.15
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Harmony (September 22, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0307407764
ISBN-13: 978-0307407764


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This book might ruffle the feathers of the biblical literalists. They will find themselves challenged on two grounds:

  1. We can explain human feelings of empathy, sympathy and the like naturally, without resort to divine causes;
  2. Ideas of a special or divinely ordained character for humans, of human exceptionalism, are not supported by the evidence.

Mind you, Frans de Waal points out, there are plenty of non-literalists, even active scientists, who feel threatened by the undermining of human exceptionalism.

On the other hand there will be plenty of pet owners and animal lovers who will nod knowingly while reading this book. They will recognise their own experiences of often “human like” behaviour displayed by non-human animals

Natural origins of human empathy

De Waal describes how empathy, sympathy and the predisposition to fairness have arisen naturally during our evolution. And these are not recent adaptions unique to humans. They have much earlier origins.

He also describes these intuitions as arising subconsciously. Not relying on any cognitive process they are an automated response over which we have little control. However, we will often resort to rationalisation to provide “explanations” for these intuitions.

We have a natural commitment to others and sensitivity to their feelings and predicaments. In the past this was often credited to divine causes but now we study it scientifically. Despite this, resistance to scientific investigation of human empathy still exists – and is not always religiously motivated.

Non-human empathy

This resistance is even stronger with other animals. Many people feel threatened by the idea that we share many of these “humane” emotions and intuitions with our close cousins.

On the other hand some animal lovers may go too far in equating these feelings in humans and other animals. This commitment to others, our sensitivity, is not just a human trait. But, maybe we do it more fully. As well as providing examples showing similarities between humans and non-humans the author also provides examples illustrating the differences.

Optimistic interpretation of biology

Evolution of empathy is obviously a positive feature of our development. As De Waal points out this realisation is a counter to the often negative, inhumane connotations placed on natural selection. The portrayal of nature as “red in tooth and claw.” We can see our biology and evolution as a process for good.

Of course this is not new. Charles Darwin himself discussed the evolutionary origins and influence of human sympathy in his work The Descent of Man.” But it is only in recent years that these positive intuitions and feelings, in non-human animals as well as humans, have begun to receive proper research attention.

We can attribute this neglect partially to religious influence. To the idea of human exceptionalism, the existence of a human soul. De Waal speculates that this expceptionalism may have arisen especially in the Judean/Christian religions which separate humanity from nature. That these religions may have developed that attitude because they arose in regions where humans were isolated from animals (like other primates) which work like us.

The book is easy to read. Use of stories and anecdotes, rather than presenting heavily referenced reports of scientific findings, helps make the material accessible. Some readers may therefore feel the book lacks authority. However, there is an extensive notes section at the back of the book, and a list of references by chapter. This should satisfy readers who want to dig deeper.

I enjoyed the last chapter – “Crooked Timber” because it provided a positive ending. It shows how biology and evolution can provide a basis for a more positive society – and helps counter the use of “social Darwinism” to justify a selfish society.

Empathy as a basis for a humane society

De Waal portrays empathy in humans as multi-layered – like a Russian Doll. At the core is the ancient tendency to match the emotional state of others. Evolution has built around this core more sophisticated capacities such as feeling concern for others and adopting their viewpoint. This enables us to undertake targeted helping and to organise society more humanely.

He says:

“I derive great optimism from empathy’s evolutionary antiquity. It makes it a robust trait that will develop in virtually every human being so that society can count on it and try to foster and grow it. It is a human universal.”

We are prone to concentrating on the negative sides of humanity, our inclination to hatred and violence, deception and exploitation. So Frans de Waal’s perspective is welcome. True, many of the negative features we share with non-human animals may be developed to a greater or more devastating effect in human. But this may also be true of our positive features.

“The role of compassion is society is therefore not just one of sacrificing time and money to relieve the plight of others, but also of pushing a political agenda that recognises everyone’s dignity.”

And finally:

“But one instrument we do have available, and that greatly enriches our thinking, has been selected over the ages, meaning that it has been tested over and over with regard to its survival value. That is our capacity to connect to and understand others and make their situation our own, the way the American people did while watching Katrina victims and Lincoln did when he came eye to eye with shackled slaves

To call upon this inborn capacity can only be to any society’s advantage.”

See also:
Interview with Frans de Waal: The Science of Empathy (Download MP3)
Chimpanzees Help Each Other upon Request

Video: Dogs can be good without god!

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3 responses to “Empathy’s origins

  1. Thanks Ken. This book looks interesting. I will have to add it to the list.

    The allure of human exceptionalism seems to also be strong in some philosophical circles. The unwillingness to even consider the implications of proven flawed human reasoning processes on their own carefully crafted “logical” arguments/thought experiments is pretty astounding to me. Particularly when it is coupled with a dismissive attitude towards evidence based reasoning.

    On a positive note, it is good to hear about somebody writing from a positive angle about “human nature”. That fact that we can support a society at all is pretty impressive and I think a reflection of precisely the sorts of things you have mentioned in your post. Also, I find it interesting that peoples political views often have some correlations to their perspective on human nature. Maggie Thatchers old “there is no such thing as society” line still makes me want to vomit.


  2. Pingback: Empathy’s origins | Open Parachute

  3. [off-topic]


    “Atheist websites hit by cyber attack”

    Australian atheists are under attack, with the websites of both the Atheist Foundation of Australia and the Global Atheist Convention knocked offline in a major cyber attack yesterday afternoon.


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