Skip to main content

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.
Paperback:  
Hardback:  
Also on Kindle:  
And on MP3  CD:  
Review by Matt Chorley

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Dialogues - Clifford Johnson ***

The authors of science books are always trying to find new ways to get the message across to their audiences. In Dialogues, Clifford Johnson combines a very modern technique - the graphic novel or comic strip - with an approach that goes back to Ancient Greece - using a dialogue to add life to what might seem a dry message.

We have seen the comic strip approach trying to put across quite detailed science before in Mysteries of the Quantum Universe. As with that book, Dialogues manages to cover a fair amount of actual physics, but I still feel that the medium just wastes vast acres of page to say very little at all. This is brought home here because quite a lot of the sections of Dialogues start with several pages with no text on at all, just setting up the scenario.

As for using a discussion between two people to put a message across, Johnson makes the point that, for instance, Galileo's very readable masterpiece Two New Sciences is in the form of a dialogue (more accurately a discu…

Liam Drew - Four Way Interview

Liam Drew is a writer and former neurobiologist. he has a PhD in sensory biology from University College, London and spent 12 years researching schizophrenia, pain and the birth of new neurons in the adult mammalian brain. His writing has appeared in Nature, New Scientist, Slate and the Guardian. He lives in Kent with his wife and two daughters. His new book is I, Mammal.

Why science?

As hackneyed as it is to say, I think I owe my fascination with science to a great teacher – in my case, Ian West, my A-level biology teacher.  Before sixth form, I had a real passion for the elegance and logic of maths, from which a basic competence at science at school arose.  But I feel like I mainly enjoyed school science in the way a schoolkid enjoys being good at stuff, rather than it being a passion.

Ian was a revelation to me.  He was a stern and divisive character, but I loved the way he taught.  He began every lesson by providing us with a series of observations and fact, then, gradually, between …

Ten Great Ideas About Chance - Persi Diaconis and Brian Skyrms ***

There are few topics that fascinate me as much as chance and probability. It's partly the wonder that mathematics can be applied to something so intangible and also because so often the outcomes of probability are counter-intuitive and we can enjoy the 'Huh?' impact of something that works yet feels so far from common sense.

I think I ought to start by saying what this is isn't. It's definitely not an introductory book - the authors assume that the reader 'has taken a first undergraduate course in probability or statistics'. And though there's an appendix that claims to be a probability tutorial for those who haven't got this background, it's not particularly reader-friendly - in theory I knew everything in the appendix, but I still found parts of it near-impossible to read.

As for the main text, if you pass that first criterion, my suspicion is that, like me, you will find parts utterly fascinating and other parts pretty much incomprehensible. Th…