The Age of Empathy

For more than a decade now, primatologist Frans De Waal has examined the evolutionary origins of morality among humans and other primates. In his latest book, The Age of Empathy, he takes a more overtly political approach than in his previous works, though the foundations of his arguments are still deeply rooted in biology. Empathy, according to De Waal, is not only the foundation of ethics and morality but also an adaptation “as old as the mammalian line.” It is not soft-hearted whimsy, it is a robust evolutionary trait that has ensured the longevity of our species.

Relying mostly on evidence not discussed in his previous works on the topic — Peacemaking among Primates (1990), Good Natured (1997) — De Waal demonstrates that all communal species exhibit an instinct to protect the weaker members of the herd. In animals with highly developed cognitive abilities, particularly apes, elephants, and dolphins, empathy is so highly developed that individual animals are capable of comprehending and accommodating the needs of others. They exhibit this behavior both in captivity and in the wild, even at times when they reap no immediate advantages in exchange for their sacrifices. While animals are most likely to engage in “altruistic” behavior toward individuals with whom they share blood ties or a strategic alliance, De Waal argues that the same is true of humans — and though we are able to empathize with individuals we have never known, who may live halfway around the world, such “humane” acts are one manifestation in a spectrum of behaviors reflecting a biological truth: individuals within communal species generally benefit when everyone works together.

De Waal’s vision of man as a communal animal does not jibe with the theoretical system of self-serving actors proposed by many economists and political scientists. Evolution, De Waal notes, is the “secret mistress” of the American Right. Heaven forbid the topic be taught in schools, but a distorted notion of how evolution works — Social Darwinism — underlies the ideological devotion to the efficiencies of the unfettered market. But politicians and scholars have often misunderstood human nature, according to De Waal. Rousseau acknowledged that his image of the noble savage (who sacrifices absolute freedom for the security of society) was a rhetorical device — but it’s still an inept metaphor for describing a species that evolved in a communal setting. De Waal prefers the lesson behind Rousseau’s metaphor of the hare and the stag: sometimes there is more to be gained through cooperation than competition.

All of that said, De Waal has witnessed firsthand the brutality of darker instincts in primates, and he has long acknowledged that aggression and hierarchical structures are also adaptive responses to environmental pressures. What he really seeks to encourage with this book is a more an honest assessment of human nature — one that will serve us all for the better.