Frans de Waal’s Age of Empathy
By Gary Olson (From Znet, October 13, 2009)
The next time you find yourself in a contentious conversation with
someone who’s arguing that humans are inherently selfish, embrace killing
and war, and (mis) using terms like “Social Darwinism,” give them a copy of Frans de
Waal’s latest book, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons For A Kinder
Society (Harmony, 2009). Only continue the discussion after they’ve read it.
The author is a psychology professor and director of the Living Links
Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University.
His previous books include Our Inner Ape (2005) and Primates and Philosophers (2006).
A world renowned primatologist, de Waal provides compelling support for
the proposition that humans are “preprogrammed to reach out.” From dolphins
ferrying injured companions to safety and grieving elephants, baboons and cats (yes, even
cats) to commiserating mice and hydrophobic chimps risking death to
save a drowning companion, this is a major contribution to understanding the
biological genesis of our inborn capacity for empathy, hence morality.
One of this book’s merits is its smooth synthesis of anecdotes gleaned
from the author’s decades long observation of primate behavior and
convincing evidence from the rapidly expanding scientific literature on this
subject. And I wouldn't be surprised if de Waal's stories prompt
a few revivifying smiles of recognition as the reader re-connects with a
shared ancestry and its contemporary progeny.
This work complements recent research from neuroscience (see Marco
Iacaboni’s Mirroring People, 2008) and the subfields of
neuroanthropology, cultural neuroscience, neuropolitics and others. Taken
as a whole it’s a potent mix and provides a convincing corrective to prevailing notions about
human nature. For de Waal, as for many students of this subject,
the question is no longer whether animals have empathy "but how it
works...My suspicion is that it works exactly the same way in humans and
other animals, even though humans may add a few complexities."
De Waal is painfully aware that biology has been routinely and willfully
misinterpreted “to justify a society based on selfish principles” and he
sets out to correct this one-sided and erroneous portrayal by examining the lengthy
evolutionary record. This, by the way, is the other meaning of age in the
In seven crisply written and wholly accessible chapters de Waal
methodically demolishes the rationale behind Gordon Gekko’s admonition in
the film Wall Street that greed “captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.” De
Waal puts it this way:
What we need is a complete overhaul of assumptions
about human nature. Too many economists and politicians model society on the
perpetual struggle they believe exists in nature, but which is a mere
projection. Like magicians, they first throw their ideological prejudices
into the hat of nature, then pull them out by their ears to show how much
nature agrees with them. It’s a trick for which we have fallen for too
De Waal is to be commended for introducing political questions into his
analysis and “If this means wading right into political controversy, so be
it.” However, this is precisely where I began to encounter some problems.
Namely, how does de Waal explain what I’ve characterized elsewhere as a
culturally-induced empathy deficit disorder, a condition bordering on the
pathological and having its roots in our socioeconomic system? In a 2007
interview, not included in this book, de Waal said, “You need to
indoctrinate empathy out of people in order to arrive at extreme capitalist
positions.” Unless I’ve totally misread him, the operative word there is
“extreme” as there’s nothing in de Waal’s public writings, inteviews, or
lectures to indicate that he’s personally opposed to capitalism, people
getting rich, and so forth. De Waal objects to an unrestrained market
system, not capitalism itself. He prefers that the economic system be
mitigated by more attention to empathy in order to soften its rough edges.
At one point he proclaims his sympathy for American conservatives “who
detest entitlement” while going on to assert that “The state is not a teat
from which one can squeeze milk from any time of the day, yet that’s how
many Europeans seem to look at it.” As a Dutch immigrant, de Waal arrived
in the United States with the following mindset: “But I also noticed that
someone who applies him-or herself, as I surely intended to do, can go very
stands in their way.”
He follows this by a comparison with European welfare states and
concludes, "Having lived for so long in the United States I find it hard to say which
system I prefer. I see the pros and cons of both." But de Waal can also write sentences
People without mercy or morals are all around us, often in prominent
positions. These snakes in suits, as one book title labels them, may
represent a small percentage of the population, but they thrive in an
economic system that rewards ruthlessness.
A society based purely on selfish motives and market forces may produce
wealth, but it can¹t produce the unity and mutual trust that makes life
...reliance on greed as the driving force of society is bound to undermine
its very fabric.
Nevertheless, de Waal seriously underestimates certain capitalist
imperatives and the role played by elites in cultivating
callousness, thereby undermining social solidarity, reciprocity and empathy.
Capitalist culture devalues an empathic disposition and as Erich Fromm
fifty years ago, there is a basic incompatibility between the underlying
principles of capitalism and the lived expression of an ethos of empathy.
As Antonio Gramsci insisted, culture is inextricably bound up in class,
power and inequality. Consensual control is realized through mass media,
education, religion, popular culture and other facets of civil society in
concert with the state.
In sum, one need not accept de Waal’s sometimes ambivalent attitude
toward the market, his warm words for so-called “economic freedom” and
“incentive structures,” his gloss on a presumed U.S. merit-based system or
his sanguine view of Obama’s potential to usher in a new era of
cooperation, in order to appreciate the book's major contributions.
Without question de Waal’s essential findings should become part of
mainstream conversation. But we need to go further by joining them with a
radical political analysis,
one that spells out the cultural mechanisms that give rise to an empathy
deficient society. Only then can we
reclaim the continuity of morality that emerges so eloquently from these
As with de Waal’s previous prolific output, this book can contribute to
delegitimizing a central system-maintenance ideological tenant of U.S. civil
society, namely the “common sense” narrative of hyper-individualism with
all its insidious consequences.
Gary Olson, Ph.D., chairs the Political Science Department at Moravian
College in Bethlehem, PA. His recent articles have appeared in Common Dreams, Zmagazine, Znet,
Dissident Voice, Neuropolitics.org and Identitytheory.com. For the past few years he’s been writing on the
neuropolitics of empathy. Contact: email@example.com