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The Age of Empathy – Frans de Waal ****

Primatologist Frans de Waal aims to remind us in this book of the caring and empathic side of human nature. This is often neglected, he argues, by political ideologies, economic theories and scientific ideas, which have tended to over-emphasise the competitiveness and struggle for existence in nature. As the subtitle (Nature’s lessons for a kinder society) suggests, the book looks at how the caring behaviour and kindness we observe in animals can illuminate our own capacities for such behaviour. The book is best seen, however, just as an exploration of empathy in the animal world in general. As such, it is fascinating, informative and difficult to put down.
Given the author’s area of research, we look largely at primates for examples of empathy in animals, and the numerous stories of animal kindness are often heart warming. Particularly interesting were the instances of animals helping and acting empathically towards members of other species – the story de Waal relates that stands out is where a bonobo takes an injured bird to the top of a tree to set it free.
What comes through constantly, apart from the extent of empathy among animals, is how acts of kindness that many have been thought to be uniquely human are clearly not. It is true that humans have a greater capacity for empathy, and a greater capacity to act with others in mind, than other animals – we can reason, and can feel empathy for others after an intellectual process has taken place (“this has happened to so-and-so, and I know they must feel bad because this is how I would feel if I were in the same position, so I empathise and should help”). But when it comes down to it, the book explains, this isn’t the fundamental basis for empathy in humans. The example scenario given is a baby drowning. We don’t reason in this situation – we just dive into the water. Observations of animals show they act in a similar way.
The most interesting section of the book is on how empathy evolved. We read how empathy has its origin in animals’ imitating each other, as it has often been evolutionary advantageous for groups to co-ordinate their actions. (Imitation has developed so much that, as the book explains, and as you will probably know, when you see somebody yawn, it’s likely you will yawn yourself.) This imitative behaviour led to emotional contagion, where if you witnessed a member of your group in distress, for example, you would feel some of the distress yourself.
The book is easy to read and it always kept my attention, mainly because of the author’s enthusiastic writing. There is a good mix of de Waal’s own personal anecdotes of endearing animal behaviour, the more empirical work that has been carried out on empathy, and the theories we have come up with to make sense of empathic behaviour. And it’s difficult not to like a book with such an uplifting theme, that celebrates the caring side of human and animal nature.
de Waal’s argument that human societies need to appreciate much more the empathic and social side of human nature is probably less relevant outside the United States, where de Waal is based. The conservative views that have held sway and which he explains he is concerned about, based on a kind of Social Darwinism, are more pronounced in American politics and society, and the European states, for instance, are in general more empathic than the US state, which in comparison has a less generous social security system, has larger inequalities, and doesn’t have universal health care.
But de Waal is a scientist, and whilst the political message of the book is a little less significant than the author might think, the science in this book is covered incredibly well. If you want a comprehensive look at empathy in animals written accessibly and endearingly, read this book.
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Review by Matt Chorley

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