email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
A Companion to GenethicsA Companion to GenethicsA Cooperative SpeciesA Mind So RareA Natural History of RapeAcquiring GenomesAdapting MindsAgeing, Health and CareAlas, Poor DarwinAn Introduction to Evolutionary EthicsAncient Bodies, Modern LivesAnimal ArchitectsAping MankindAre We Hardwired?Bang!BehavingBeyond EvolutionBeyond GeneticsBlood MattersBody BazaarBoneBrain Evolution and CognitionBrain StormBrave New BrainBrave New WorldsChoosing ChildrenCloneCloningConceptual Issues in Evolutionary BiologyConsciousness EvolvingContemporary Debates in Philosophy of BiologyControlling Our DestiniesCooperation and Its EvolutionCreatures of AccidentDarwin Loves YouDarwin's Brave New WorldDarwin's Gift to Science and ReligionDarwin's UniverseDarwin's WormsDarwinian ConservatismDarwinian PsychiatryDarwinism and its DiscontentsDarwinism as ReligionDebating DesignDecoding DarknessDefenders of the TruthDo We Still Need Doctors?Doubting Darwin?Early WarningEngineering the Human GermlineEnhancing EvolutionEnoughEntwined LivesEthical Issues in Human CloningEthical Issues in the New GeneticsEvil GenesEvolutionEvolutionEvolution and Human BehaviorEvolution and Human BehaviorEvolution and Human Sexual BehaviorEvolution and LearningEvolution and ReligionEvolution and the Human MindEvolution in MindEvolution, Gender, and RapeEvolution: The Modern SynthesisEvolutionary Ethics and Contemporary BiologyEvolutionary Origins of MoralityEvolutionary PsychiatryEvolutionary PsychologyEvolutionary Psychology and ViolenceEvolutionary Psychology as Maladapted PsychologyExploding the Gene MythFaces of Huntington'sFlesh of My FleshFrom Chance to ChoiceFrom Darwin to HitlerGenesGenes in ConflictGenes on the CouchGenes, Environment, and PsychopathologyGenes, Environment, and PsychopathologyGenes, Women, EqualityGenetic Nature/CultureGenetic PoliticsGenetic ProspectsGenetic ProspectsGenetic SecretsGenetics of Criminal and Antisocial BehaviourGenetics of Mental DisordersGenetics of Original SinGenetics of Original SinGenomeGenomeGenome: Updated EditionGenomes and What to Make of ThemGlowing GenesHow Women Got Their Curves and Other Just-So StoriesHuman CloningHuman Evolution, Reproduction, and MoralityImproving Nature?In Our Own ImageIn Pursuit of the GeneIn the Name of GodIngenious GenesInheritanceInside the Human GenomeInside the O'BriensIntegrating Evolution and DevelopmentIntelligence, Race, and GeneticsIs Human Nature Obsolete?Language OriginsLess Than HumanLiberal EugenicsLiving with Our GenesMaking Genes, Making WavesMaking Sense of EvolutionMan As The PrayerMean GenesMenMood GenesMoral OriginsMothers and OthersNature Via NurtureNever Let Me GoNot By Genes AloneOf Flies, Mice, and MenOn the Origin of StoriesOrigin of MindOrigins of Human NatureOrigins of PsychopathologyOur Posthuman FuturePhilosophy of BiologyPlaying God?Playing God?Portraits of Huntington'sPrimates and PhilosophersPromiscuityPsychiatric Genetics and GenomicsPsychologyQuality of Life and Human DifferenceRe-creating MedicineRedesigning HumansResearch Advances in Genetics and GenomicsResponsible GeneticsResponsible GeneticsScience, Seeds and CyborgsSex and WarSociological Perspectives on the New GeneticsStrange BedfellowsStrange BehaviorSubjects of the WorldSubordination and DefeatThe Age of EmpathyThe Agile GeneThe Ape and the Sushi MasterThe Biotech CenturyThe Blank SlateThe Book of LifeThe Bridge to HumanityThe Case Against PerfectionThe Case for PerfectionThe Case of the Female OrgasmThe Century of the GeneThe Common ThreadThe Concept of the Gene in Development and EvolutionThe Debated MindThe Double-Edged HelixThe Epidemiology of SchizophreniaThe Ethics of Human CloningThe Evolution of CooperationThe Evolution of MindThe Evolution of MindThe Evolved ApprenticeThe Evolving WorldThe Fact of EvolutionThe Folly of FoolsThe Future of Human NatureThe God GeneThe Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe Impact of the GeneThe Innate MindThe Innate MindThe Innate Mind: Volume 3The Limits and Lies of Human Genetic ResearchThe Lives of the BrainThe Maladapted MindThe Meme MachineThe Misunderstood GeneThe Moral, Social, and Commercial Imperatives of Genetic Testing and ScreeningThe Most Dangerous AnimalThe New Genetic MedicineThe Nurture AssumptionThe Origin and Evolution of CulturesThe Origins of FairnessThe Paradoxical PrimateThe Perfect BabyThe Robot's RebellionThe Selfish GeneThe Shape of ThoughtThe Shattered SelfThe Stem Cell ControversyThe Story WithinThe Stuff of LifeThe Talking ApeThe Temperamental ThreadThe Terrible GiftThe Theory of OptionsThe Top 10 Myths About EvolutionThe Triple HelixThe Triumph of SociobiologyThe Woman Who Walked into the SeaTwinsUnderstanding CloningUnderstanding the GenomeUnnatural SelectionUnto OthersUp From DragonsWar Against the WeakWhat Genes Can't DoWhat It Means to Be 98 Percent ChimpanzeeWho Owns YouWhose View of Life?Why Evolution Is TrueWhy Think? WondergenesWrestling with Behavioral GeneticsYour Genetic Destiny
Frans de Waal is well known for his studies of primates and his insistence that animals are capable of empathy. This new book presents more of the same, occasionally putting the discussion in a political context, arguing against the view that animals are inherently selfish. De Waal gives many examples of non-human cooperative behavior in animals, even when the animals are not blood relations. He also argues that some primates have a sense of fairness, one of the more sophisticated moral concepts. This is a wonderful book to dip into, but a frustrating one to read from start to finish, since it is hard to discern a clear organizing principle for the chapters. After reading a few pages, one tends to run out of momentum, because themes seem to repeat.
The basic idea is simple and plausible. De Waal argues that out natural tendencies are to be compassionate and caring about other people in our society, and our social policies should reflect that. He is a liberal, and he is especially critical of political arguments that appeal to evolutionary slogans such as 'survival of the fittest' to justify cutting back welfare. He points out that most animals who live in groups will sacrifice their own immediate interests for those of others in their group, and that they are better off for doing so.
Some chapters are more tightly focused than others. One on animals imitating each other is full of great examples. Mimicking and learning behavior from others is common not only among primates, but also in many other animals. Still, he soon moves from copying behavior to feeling empathy, which is of course the theme that runs through every chapter. He shows that not only humans and primates are capable of empathy, but even mice have intensified pain reactions if they see other mice experiencing pain. He further argues that for empathy to be possible, animals need to be able to recognize the feelings and emotions of other animals, and that this is primarily done through looking at faces.
Other chapters seem to be little more than collections of musings on empathy with plenty of examples of research on it. Neither the chapter title nor the section headings, give much clue as to how the chapter is different from the rest, and nearly every section starts off as an anecdote or some comment on animal life or human politics. There's no discernable line of argument. Nevertheless, the book is full of fascinating information that all fits together quite well. There are 33 pages of notes and 24 pages of references, so there is plenty of scientific backing for de Waal's claims. It feels as if the book is an attempt to reach a very wide readership and in making this effort it avoids all the trappings of normal scholarly writing in its main text. However, this means that the reader is left with few signposts about what the main argument is meant to be. It may all be clear in de Waal's mind how the different pieces of evidence are meant to fit together, but it does not come through in the writing.
I do plan to use extracts of this book in teaching ethics, because his examples are so powerful and appealing. I especially remember the capuchin monkeys in Costa Rica who play games of trust, inserting fingers up each other's noses and into each other's eye balls, and keep them there for several minutes. One false move could cause serious damage, and so they have to be very still. De Waal speculates that the monkeys are testing their bonds.
It is increasingly clear that evidence such as that collected by de Waal in The Age of Empathy points to the capacity for empathy in a surprising range of mammals, and this may lead us to take this to be a central part of human nature rather than a cultural artifact caused by soft thinking or a bleeding heart. This helps to counteract the Hobbesian and Freudian view of human nature as basically selfish and violent, and makes it more plausible to see humans as social animals who have the capacity for violence but will for the most part aim to avoid it, and who tend to feel sympathy for those who are hurt or in need. So, as philosophers have recognized for some time, if a ethical theory depends on an understanding of human nature, this study of the moral nature of animals is essential. While cultural differences are still important, we can acknowledge cultural variability of morality while at the same time accepting that there are universal moral tendencies at the heart of human nature. It helps to counter-balance the current tendency to parrot the phrase "everyone is different," and suggests that while it may convey come important truth, it also overlooks fundamental commonality about humans, and indeed, any social animals.
© 2010 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York
Welcome to MHN's unique book review site Metapsychology.
We feature over 7800 in-depth reviews of a wide range of books and DVDs written by our reviewers from many backgrounds and
We update our front page weekly and add more than thirty new reviews each month. Our editor is Christian Perring, PhD. To contact him, use one of the forms available here.
Can't remember our URL? Access our reviews directly via 'metapsychology.net'
Metapsychology Online reviewers normally receive gratis review copies of the items they review.
Metapsychology Online receives a commission from Amazon.com for purchases through this site, which helps us send
review copies to reviewers. Please support us by making your Amazon.com purchases through our Amazon links. We thank
you for your support!
Join our e-mail list!: Metapsychology New Review Announcements: Sent out monthly, these
announcements list our recent reviews. To subscribe, click
Interested in becoming a book reviewer for Metapsychology? Currently, we especially need thoughtful reviewers
for books in fiction, self-help and popular psychology. To apply, write to our editor.
Metapsychology Online Reviews
Promote your Page too
Metapsychology Online Reviews