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The Age of EmpathyReview - The Age of Empathy
Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society
by Frans de Waal
Harmony, 2010
Review by Christian Perring
Apr 27th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 17)

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



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