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 AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…