Frans de Waal:
"The Age of Empathy" (2009)

(Copyright © 2016 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
This (very readable) book summarizes the previous eight published by the Dutch zoologist Frans de Waal.

The preface opens with a declaration that nobody believes anymore that markets are self-regulating after the financial crisis of 2007. Ten years later the author must be appalled by how quickly people forget history, as the USA is now run by the Republican Party (the party that believes precisely in what nobody should believe in anymore). The party of self-regulating markets has won the majority in Congress, Senate and the presidency. "Empathy is the grand theme of our time" the author proclaims. Little did he know that in 2016 the presidential election would be won by the most vicious bully in the Republican pack. Some of the voters possibly chose Trump because they felt that he empathyzed better with their plight, but we all suspect that many were driven by racism, sexism and plain violence to support the least humane (and certainly least moral) of the 17 Republican candidates. So the preface is a little out of touch with what happened in the following decade (and not only in the USA) but that doesn't detract from the general argument of the book.

The author's theory is that empathy and altruism evolved for selfish reasons but now stand on their own. Biologists think that many traits in animals evolved for one reason but today are used for something else. He starts out by showing that several animals, including humans, cannot survive by competition alone: they are designed to work in groups. This was already claimed by Darwin in "The Descent of Man".

In 2001 Jonathan Haidt published a study according to which some abstract moral principles are not enforced by authorities but are intuitively believed by most humans (i personally find Haidt's experiments very weak).

The author wants to prove that altruism is emotionally driven. The book is full of touching stories about animal emotions, from the famous Japanese dog Hachiko, whofor eleven years kept waking to the station waiting for his master even if the master had died (i personally think that this simply proves the stupidity of dog, an animal that can be easily trained like a robot and has very little understanding of what it is doing) to chimps and elephants displaying this or that emotional reaction, and of studies that proved empathy in lower animals, starting with Russell Church's "Emotional Reactions of Rats to the Pain of Others" (1959) and peaking with everybody's favorite, the bonobo.

Inevitably, there's a chapter on mirror neurons that "erase the line between self and other". He even advances the "Body First Theory" according to which first we run and then feel fear (because we are running).

He suspects that empathy may have evolved before sympathy, not the other way around, which makes sense if you believe that empathy is a bodily reaction whereas sympathy requires some thinking.

He notes that babies evolve a sense of self (they recognize themselves in the mirror) at the same time that they evolve a concern for others. The co-emergence of selfishness and altruism is found in dolphins and elephants. In fact, the key neurons for empathy, the Von Economo Neurons (VENs) are only found in the brains of apes, dolphins, whales and elephants. Damage to these neurons causes people to lose any form of empathy, even for their own family, as well as self-awareness, thus confirming the co-emergence thesis.

For the record, monkeys do not pass the mirror test: they don't recognize themselves in the mirror. However, they can recognize food in the mirror.

After the publication of this book several additional theories have been advanced to explain the evolution of altruism. For example, in 2017 Lilach Hadany's lab at Tel Aviv University proposed that dangerous bacteria can trigger altruistic behaviors in animals ("Microbes can help explain the evolution of host altruism", 2017).

The author does not hesitate to attack behaviorism over and over again. The author is a strong believer that bonding makes humans happiest. What i have witnessed in every society of the world is that people choose privacy over friends whenever they get rich enough that they don't need friends anymore. Countries that provide the best services are the countries where people tend to live the most private lives with the lowest degree of socialization. Whether it makes people happy or not is debatable (define "happiness") but certainly there is a strong human instinct towards getting rid of family and friends whenever we can. Ayn Rand's books, shameless propaganda for unchecked selfishness, became popular during the economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s. The US constitution talks about the pursuit of happiness but maybe it should talk about the pursuit of self-sufficiency.

The author is correct in stating that security if the first and foremost reason for social life. But the author doesn't see what i have seen all over the world: the more secure a society is, the less social people are. If you don't need your neighbors for your own security, you don't socialize with them. He points a general rule (that has exception): "the more vulnerable a species is, the larger its aggregations". I can find exceptions in seconds, from spiders to deer.

The psychological argument seems stronger. The author shows that humans excel at synchronizing their behavior with the behavior of the other humans around them, and we actually derive pleasure from doing so. I am not sure that choral singing is a good example (its origin may simply lie in the lack of amplification) but it is true that we tend to laugh when the people around us are laughing and we even tend to assume the tone and accent of the people who are speaking to us. The author finds a general propensity in nature towards imitation, and, in particular, a key feature of cognition: the propensity to imitate others is also the ability to recreate what we see others do. And when we recreate what they do, we strengthen the bond between us and them; which in turn increases the likelihood that we imitate each other. He quotes Ulf Dimberg's theory of involuntary empathy and reminds us that empathy begins with parental care.

DeWaal spends the last chapters trying to convince the reader that primates evolved to be community builders.

The author attacks the idea that humans are a warmongering species, and this is one of his weakest claims. Warfare is rare in thinly populated areas but widespread and recurring in heavily populated areas. The remedy against endemic warfare has been the creation of higher and higher degrees of control: the neighborhood police, the state, international organizations. Peace is enforced. It is not the natural state of humans at all. The safest countries are the most brutal dictatorships, where crime is almost impossible. The moment those dictatorial regimes fall, crime becomes an issue. Free countries need a large and well-trained police force in order to keep people "peaceful". Peace has often been enforced by a brutal empire, like in the cases of the Pax Romana and the Pan Mongola. It is true that war between groups of humans is a later invention because for a long time it was pointless: there were few humans and plenty of resources. But that doesn't mean that humans were born with the genes of peace. The genes of war were there and were just waiting to be triggered by the environment. The author uses a one-sided logic: if gene X is not needed, then it was not selected by evolution. But that can go either way: the gene for war was not needed in ancient times, but neither was the gene for peace. In my opinion, evolution flipped a coin and gave humans the gene for war. Whenever the appropriate conditions arise, that gene makes us vicious and ferocious warriors. Over the centuries we decided that it makes sense to create states and hire police to avoid that we spend all the time trying to exterminate each other. That's my version of the facts. I don't think the archeological and historical record proves his version of the facts. The moment we had a reason to do so, we started killing each other, more often than any other species. A lot of technology (including the computer and the Internet) was invented not for civilian needs but for warmongering needs. Civilians have become addicted to many military inventions, which to me proves that there was a civilian need for them, but it is legitimate to wonder whether anyone would have invented them without the wartime need to kill others. Throughout the book the author views group behavior as indication of a genetic predisposition to empathy whereas i see it as a genetic predisposition to opportunism.

He thinks that humans are horrified by the killing of a fellow human, but history shows otherwise: many killings, including mob killings, were driven by the human passion for killing. Killing has always been one of the most successful shows, whether performed at the Colosseum or in the trenches of World War II. Humans have always enjoyed torturing, beheading and even eating fellow humans, even when not ordered and not necessary. DeWaal's view of the human nature is more wishful thinking than historical fact.

DeWaal concludes with a compromise: humans are bipolar apes, prone to both bonobo-style kindness and to chimp-like brutality. He thinks that humankind's biggest problem in the 21st century is excessive loyalty to one's nation or religion.

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