Frans de Waal, The Age of Empathy, Harmony Books, 2009.

This is not an official discussion selection for our book club, but it was written by my former colleague at Emory, Frans de Waal, and I think the book might be of interest to some of our book club members.  I provide here a chapter by chapter précis of some of the main themes in the book.


Preface: Empathy is the grand theme of our time. The message of this book is that human nature offers a giant helping hand in the  endeavor of increasing empathy in our society.

Chapter 1. Biology, Left and Right

Two similar views arose during English Industrial Revolution; an economic view that our purpose is to consume and produce, and a biological view that our purpose is to survive and reproduce. Both views imply that competition is good. However even the Father of Economics, Adam Smith, realized that self interest needs to be tempered by “fellow feeling.” Why is that later sentiment ridiculed in our times? Many commentators on the political right now espouse the belief that “fellow felling” is unnecessary because the “invisible hand” of the free market, a metaphor introduced by Adam Smith, is sufficient to take care of societies woes. Frans de Waal decided to weigh in on these issues because many invoke biology in support of these arguments, but they do not really understand biology.

Biologically oriented scientists are interested in understanding human nature, but approach questions from the point of view of “What is the evidence?” instead of as ideological positions that must be defended. The vast body of knowledge that has accumulated in anthropology, psychology, biology, and neuroscience demonstrates that there are two sides to human nature. We are social animals that are highly cooperative and usually peace loving, but we are also selfish animals focused on status, resources, and territory. Since the emphasis in in our society in recent years has been mostly on the later, emphasis in this book will be on the former, qualities such as empathy and social connectedness. These two aspects of our biological background can also be seen in chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, who demonstrate a concern with  status and ownership  but also with cooperation and sharing. These dual traits can be seen in all social species.

Darwin argued that morality is derived from biology, and that philosophers such as Kant got it wrong when they argued that morality is derived strictly from abstract thought and reasoning. Much of our ethics is derived from primitive reactions that come from a bodily level.  Our bodies and minds are made for social life, as evidenced by our aversion to solitary confinement, and we are aware of and affected by the behavior of others as evidenced by mood transfer.

Frans tries to dispel three false myths about our human ancestors. First, that we ruled the jungle. Actually, individual humans were weak and would not have been able to survive except by cooperating in groups. Second, is the myth that human society was a voluntary creation done by autonomous men. This myth was propagated by Rousseau in his idea of a social contract – being intelligent animals, humans decided to give up a few liberties in return for community life. Society is regarded as a negotiated compromise rather than as something that came natural to humans. In fact, we descend from a long line of group-living primates with a high degree of interdependence. Third myth is that humans have always been at war. In fact, during most of human history we lived in small hunter-gatherer groups in which conflicts with other groups were relatively rare. Because of shared kin and other interdependencies between groups that lived close to one another, our ancestors probably did not wage war on a grand scale until they settled down and began to accumulate wealth by means of agriculture.

Chapter 2. The Other Darwinism

The conservative movement in American society has a bipolar nature. Those on the right love “Social Darwinism”, but do not believe in Darwin’s biological theory of evolution. The phrase, survival of the fittest, was unleashed on the public by British political philosopher Herbert Spencer in 19th century. J.D. Rockefeller married the concept with religion and asserted that large business “is merely the working out of a law of nature and a law of God.” Frans finds it hard to understand how conservative Christians can adopt these views and accept the writings of Jesus about compassion at the same time without cognitive dissonance.

The emphasis on economic freedom in America brings out best and worst in people. Worst is a deficit in compassion. Best is a merit based society. Frans, being an immigrant from Netherlands is intrigued by this paradox.

Many animal societies have similar dichotomies in which various combinations of selfishness and cooperation coexist, and this book will describe many examples. Frans is aware that it is easy to fall prey to naturalistic fallacy, which is the mistake of trying to prescribe what ought to be based on what is. Nevertheless, he argues that in deciding how to organize our society, we should be aware of biological predispositions, similar to the way a zoo keeper keeps track of these when deciding which animals to enclose together.

Darwin was influenced by Malthus’s 1798 essay on population growth when he formulated ideas about natural selection. So was Spencer, but Spencer interpreted the idea that a population will often regulate itself by starvation and disease as a prescription for how it ought to be. Why was society so receptive to Spencer’s ideas? Frans speculates that in previous generations the rich considered themselves to be a different breed, and felt no obligation to the lower classes. This attitude became harder to maintain following the industrial revolution when many of those who were rich started out poor, but got rich by trampling over others who were poor. Spencer gave justification for trampling others in order to get ahead. This idea was pushed to the limit by later writers such as Ann Rand who argued that our only obligation is to ourselves. Many influential economists, such as  Greenspan, bought in to these ideas.

One flaw in Spencer’s argument was first pointed out by the Russian prince and naturalist Petr Kropotkin. He argued that struggles in animal societies are not really between individuals so much as between groups of individuals against the environment. Observing nature in Siberia, he noted that in subzero cold you either huddle or die. The importance of cooperation and mutual aid is now a standard ingredient of modern evolutionary theory. Frans summarizes several examples in which primates demonstrate community concern. He argues that every society, including humans, needs to strike a balance between self interest and support of the community. Frans thinks American society has been at an extreme self interest end of the spectrum recently as evidenced by individuals such as Jeff Skilling at Enron who was a great fan of Richard Dawken’s book, The Selfish Gene. Frans has publicly criticized Dawkens for allowing this kind of misinterpretation of his book. In actual fact, calling genes selfish says nothing about the motivations of the individuals carrying these genes, but Frans thinks using that kind of terminology needlessly allows misinterpretation by the misinformed.

Even it a trait did originally evolve for selfish purposes, that does not necessarily mean it still functions for that purpose. Confusing the reason a trait originally evolved with the purpose it currently serves is called the motivational fallacy. The animal kingdom is full of traits that originally evolved for some purpose, but now serve another. Examples include the maternal instinct, sex, and kindness. Offering assistance to others may have originally evolved to serve self interest (quid pro quo), but now individuals help one another for many reasons in addition to self interest.

“If biology is to inform government and society, the least we should do is get the full picture, drop the cardboard version that is Social Darwinism, and look at what evolution has actually put into place.”

Chapter 3. Bodies Talking to Bodies

Humans are easily swayed in one emotional direction or another by those around us, as evidenced by laughter contagion, yawning, walking-in-step and other forms of synchrony. This is where the origins of empathy and sympathy are to be found; not in higher forms of cognition that try to reconstruct how we would feel if we were in someone else’s position. Chapter give lots of examples of imitation and “aping” in humans and animals. These examples raise interesting questions about  what scientists refer to as the correspondence problem, especially across species.

The Germain psychologist, Theodore Lipps (1851–1914), is responsible for modern concept of empathy, which he defined as “feeling into another,” as when we watch a high-wire artist. He argued that empathy was an independent psychological capacity that cannot be reduced to other capacities such as learning, association, or reasoning. He considered empathy to be a bottom-up rather than a top-down process. More modern studies, such as those by Swedish psychologist Ulf Dimberg, support this view. There is considerable evidence that empathetic responses are immediate and unconscious.

Evolution of empathy probably started with the maternal instinct – mothers are exquisitely sensitive to state of their infants. American neuroscientist, Paul MacLean, drew on similar ideas back in the 1950s when he first characterized an interconnected set of structures that are present in the brains of all mammals that he named the limbic system. Since empathy is one of the functions regulated by the limbic system, it should be present to some extent in all mammals. American Psychologist, Russell Church, published paper in 1959 demonstrating empathy in mice. He discovered that mice will stop pressing a bar if they become aware that pressing the bar is causing pain to other mice. Frans summarizes several other studies demonstrating empathy in humans and animals.

Empathy is not necessarily the same thing as understanding intellectually what someone else is feeling. This understanding can be cold and uncaring. Empathy requires an emotional understanding about what the other is feeling. The bodily reaction of empathy comes first, sometimes followed by cognitive understanding.

Why would empathy evolve? It probably arose first as emotional contagion. When emotional contagion evolves into empathy, it can have both selfish and unselfish motivations. An example of self-protective altruism would be a rodent who hears another rodent scream, goes into hiding, and as a result saves self from predator. Another example would be a  primate who stops activities that are causing pain to another, and this action has the effect of eliminating uncomfortable feelings associated with watching another suffer.

This chapter also gives a brief description of mirror neurons in the brain that were first discovered by Italian neuroscientists in the 1990s. Mirror neurons are thought to provide a biological mechanism that can enable empathy.

Chapter 4. Someone Else’s Shoes

The Darwin museum in Russia has near it entrance a statue of Lamarck, the French evolutionist whose ideas are often contrasted with Darwin. The Bolsheviks liked the ideas of evolutionary theory because of its secular implications, but did not like the idea of genetic change. Lamark provided a version of evolution that did not depend on genetic mutations. Stalin, under the influence of his protege, the amateur geneticist Lysenko, banned scientific discussion of non-Lamarkian forms of evolution. The directors of the Darwin Museum, Aleksandr and Nadia Kohts, had to keep items that did not conform to Lamarkian views hidden in the basement.

Nadia raised a Chimpanzee named Yoni, and her diaries chart his emotional development, including the emotion of sympathy for others.  Robert Yerkes, the founder of the Yerkes Primate Center where Frans now works, had also observed what appeared to him to be sympathy in a Bonabo named Prince Chim, and he had visited Nadia in Russia to discuss issues involving emotion in animals.

Sympathy, often derives from empathy, but goes a step further and includes a concern about others and a desire to improve their situation. Frans has documented thousands of instances of one form of sympathy that he calls consolation following fights in primates. He argues that it is not reasonable to attribute all forms of consolation as being motivated by a desire to comfort ourselves because why would the comforter approach the individual needing comfort rather than simply moving away. He also describes several other examples of sympathy in the form of targeted helping.

A simple precursor of consolation, called preconcern, might be a reflexive response that propels us towards relatives and significant others when we perceive that they are stressed. This is probably what occurs in very young children who are drawn towards a crying parent, even if they are not aware of what is happening. Preconcern forms the rudimentary basis for development of full-fledged sympathy. It is probably present in some form in many mammalian species. Among primates, full-fledged sympathy has only been documented in great apes, including humans.

Pioneering studies of Emil Menzel in the 1970s with chimps are described. He was interested in issues related to what psychologists now refer to as theory of mind, the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes to figure out what the other individual feels, wants, or knows. Menzel would reveal information to one chimp and then see what other chimps inferred based on watching the first chimp’s behavior. Complex behaviors including deception often ensued.

Human children develop theory of mind at about 4 years. It has also been demonstrated in other primate species and in one bird species, ravens. Theory of mind does not have to necessarily involve emotion, it can simply involve cold perspective taking. The topic of interest in this book is helping behavior that involves both theory of mind understanding and emotion. When both are present, an organism can move from preconcern to true targeted helping.

There is a methodological issue involved in studying this because the most striking examples are often one-time events. Several examples are described including some of Frans’ own studies of capuchins using selfish and prosocial tokens.

Chapter 5. The Elephant in the Room

Frans and his student, Joshua Plotnik, adapted the Gordon Gallop mirror test, a test of whether an individual has a sense-of-self-identify, to test elephants. Human babies fail this test until about age two. A recently formulated co-emergence hypothesis posits that a sense of self and sympathy are linked. Caring for others and passing the mirror test emerge at same time in human infants. The common finding that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny leads to hypothesis that species that pass mirror test should also be the ones to show helping behavior. Dolphins were first discovered to fit this description. Diana Reiss and Lori Marino demonstrated that dolphins can pass a version of the mirror test, and there are many examples of helping behavior in dolphins. There are also many examples of helping behavior in elephants, which leads to the question of whether elephants can also pass the mirror test. This was tested at the Bronx zoo in collaboration with Reiss. One elephant named Maxine passed, but two others failed.

In 1999, a group of neuroscientists that included John Allman described Von Economo (VEN) neurons that are present in great apes but not other primates. They appear to be present in only two other mammalian species, dolphins and elephants. Certain forms of human dementia that involve loss of self-awareness, perspective taking, and empathy are also correlated with loss of these neurons. Studies of  monkeys, that do not have VEN neurons, were carried out by Frans with student Filippo Aureli. The studies failed to find evidence for consolation following fights. Monkeys appear to have empathy, but not sympathy. This finding suggests that VEN neurons might be necessary to enable sympathy. However, this issue is not settled because Frans describes several other examples with monkeys that are borderline in terms of demonstrating sympathy, including examples of bridging behavior and pointing.

Chapter 6. Fair is Fair

Humans have a deeply ingrained and complex sense of fairness. The same situation can produce either empathy or Schadenfreude depending on the social relationships involved. This does not appear to be the case in nonhuman primates. Chimpanzees do not laugh when the dominant male of the group makes a fool of himself.

As Rousseau first proposed, “If we truly were the cunning schemers that economists say we are, we’d be forever hunting hare, whereas our prey could be stag.” In other words, cooperation allows a group to achieve larger goals than independent individual efforts. How does one foster cooperation in a group? Companies often have employees play trust building games in order to maximize efficiency of the company. Capuchin monkeys do something similar; They engage in eye-poking. Other examples are when pets allow humans to do things to them that involve trust, monkeys that assist hippos with dental hygiene as do cleaner fish with predator fish. There is a human condition, Williams syndrome, in which  individuals are too trusting.

Adam Smith thought only humans could engage in commerce: “Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog…”  But there is now lots of evidence for animal economies. Capuchins will cooperate to pull a tray that neither can pull alone. Kropotkin argued that cooperation evolved because all parties gain. However, that is only true if there are no loafers or psychopaths. Thus evolution of cooperation would only work if it was combined with evolution of a sense of fairness – I will  only cooperate with those I think are fair. This is true in animals as well as humans. Activities such as grooming and reciprocity also aid in building trust..

The way primates trade commodities mimics human economies in surprising ways. Capuchen laborers will go on strike if not rewarded sufficiently. Chimps will spend weeks or months building alliances in preparation for a coup. And DNA studies have now demonstrated that cooperation occurs between unrelated individuals as well as kin, although kin helping is more frequent. In humans, strong reciprocity is applied to strangers, but we are more lenient with kin and clan. Nevertheless, these relationships also apply to strangers, which is probably an example of motivational autonomy.

What is considered fair differs for the haves and the have-nots. We are not driven to empathize and sympathize in an unconditioned fashion. Instead, we weigh self-concern with being cooperative, and try to strike a balance. The evolutionary history of our sense of fairness is under-appreciated by those who think it was formulated by wise men during the French Enlightenment. Exercises such as the ultimatum game demonstrate that fairness is more important to humans than maximizing profit. Capuchens act the same way as humans regarding inequity aversion. Our feelings towards wall street bailout are also consistent with this. Similar factors may explain the chimp attack on a human at a sanctuary. The bottom line take home message: “If you want peace, work for justice.”

Egoism always lurks around the corner from cooperation. In studies of capuchins in which they were given selfish versus prosocial options, it has been discovered that there are three ways to eliminate cooperation: Pair with a stranger; Put the other out of sight; Give larger reward to the other. And to motivate an individual to work harder, simply give the reward to a different capuchen following mistakes. These kinds of findings made Frans surprised at criticism that his research reflects an anti-capitalist bias. Justice has two faces; income equality and a sense of fairness. Europe emphasizes former, USA the latter. Frans with a foot on each continent sees both. Animal studies support both.

None of the findings discussed in this chapter conforms very well with economic theories that consider humans to be rational profit maximizers.

Chapter 7. Crooked Timber

Frans asks, What changes would I make if I were God? He argues that Marxism is founded on illusion that humans are a tabular rasa that can be molded in any way we choose in order to build a cooperative society. This view fails to take into account our genetic heritage. He asserts that radical feminism made the same mistake (refers to John/Joan case study). Humans are bipolar apes. We share cooperative characteristics of peace loving Bonobos and self-serving aggressiveness of Chimpanzees. His bottom line: “So, strange as it may sound, I’d be reluctant to radically change the human condition. But if I could change one thing, it would be to expand the range of fellow feeling.”

Fostering empathy in our society is made difficult by current conservative political landscape in which Social Darwinism dominates, as evidenced in 2007 column by David Brooks. It is also made difficult by bias of most scientists that one should not talk about concepts such as emotional states with respect to animals. This bias originated in Western Religions with the concept of human exceptionalism, was passed on to Western philosophy, and then to the social sciences when they emerged out of philosophy.

It seems odd that even though we hesitate to attribute “positive” traits such as empathy to animals, we have no problem attributing unwanted human characteristics, such as aggression, to our evolutionary heritage. Humans, it is often  argued, have to work to overcame their “brutish” nature. But empathy is also part of our evolutionary heritage, and it is not a newly evolved trait. It goes back at least as far as mammals. Its full capacity has been constructed like a Russian doll. Innermost is state matching in the form of emotional contagion. Overlaid on this comes concern for others that can take forms such as consolation. Outermost, is perspective-taking and targeted helping. The fact that empathy is such an old trait gives reason for optimism. That means it is a robust trait present in all humans that can potentially be fostered by society.

The human species also has a dark side. It is interesting to reflect on why an organization such as  Amnesty International is needed, an organization that uses appeals to empathy in order to fight the lack of it! Torture exploits what we know about perspective-taking to figure out what will hurt someone the most. Also there are individuals, called psychopaths, in which the brain has been wired wrong. These individuals are good at perspective-taking, and thus are good at manipulating others, but lack empathy.

Also, we would be worn down emotionally if we could not turn the empathy portal off sometimes. The chief factor that determines how easy or hard it is to turn off empathy is relatedness or closeness. Within our immediate family and closest friends, the empathy portal is almost always turned on. As connectedness becomes weaker, it becomes easier to turn it off. We can be taught to almost completely turn it off for an “enemy group”. Men are able to do this more easily than women. Nevertheless, most men are unable to completely turn off empathy. It has been estimated that only 1 to 2% of soldiers do the vast majority of killing in wars, and many of these individuals are probably psychopaths.  When psychological methods are effectively employed during military training to turn off the empathy portal during extended deployments in war zones, non-psychopathic soldiers frequently experience long lasting psychological damage such as such as PTSD, depression, and even suicide.

Empathy is strongest when there is a bodily connection, and the adage, out of sight out of mind, is at least partially relevant. That is why empathy works better in small social groups where everyone knows one another than in large, anonymous societies. The 2008 financial collapse is a good example. Greenspan and others put their faith in Adam Smith’s invisible hand. However, their reading of Smith was selective. His views are actually more compatible with much of what we have learned from the studies of animals described in this book.

Empathy for other people is one commodity the world most needs more of. We need to learn how to balance individual and collective interests in our current complex societies. One of the tools we can use to help with this is to foster our inborn capacity for empathy. The bottom line message: “To call upon this inborn capacity can only be to any society’s advantage.”

About Ron Boothe

I am a retired professor of psychology living in Tacoma Washington USA.
This entry was posted in 2010 Selections, The Age of Empathy. Bookmark the permalink.

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