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Fellow Feeling

Joan Silk

THE AGE OF EMPATHY: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society. Frans de Waal. x + 291 pp. Harmony Books, 2009. $25.99.

2010-03BRevSilkFA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageThe thesis of Frans de Waal’s new book, The Age of Empathy, is that empathy comes “naturally” to humans, by which he means that it is a biologically grounded capacity that all people share. According to de Waal, empathy has deep evolutionary roots, having originated before the order Primates came into existence. The antiquity of empathy firmly fixes its place in human nature, he believes, making it a robust trait that develops in all societies. De Waal makes an impassioned and eloquent case that understanding the role of empathy in nature can help us build a kinder and more compassionate society. His message will have considerable resonance for many readers.

De Waal has long been a critic of the notion that evolution drives us (and our primate relatives) to express the darker sides of our natures. He has been impatient with colleagues who are fixated on the struggle for existence and give short shrift to the need for cooperation and accommodation among interdependent animals that live in groups. Thus, while many primatologists have focused on evolutionary pressures that generate high levels of competition and conflicts within a group, de Waal has emphasized the importance of the mechanisms that primates use to defuse tension, resolve conflicts and repair the damage caused by them.

De Waal’s argument in this book hinges on his claim that empathy is an ancient trait. Emphasizing the continuity in empathic concern across species, he speculates that empathy may be as old as maternal care itself. His reasoning is partly based on the selective advantages that he thinks empathy would have provided for mothers. Females who were sensitive to, and able to anticipate, the needs of their developing offspring would have been more successful mothers than those who were less responsive, he argues. But even if that’s the case, it does not necessarily mean that mammals actually evolved the capacity for empathy. After all, it might also have been useful for mammalian males to have the capacity to lactate, because in some circumstances males who could provide nourishment for their young might have had greater reproductive success than those who lacked this capacity. Nevertheless, except under rare specific conditions, mammalian males do not lactate.

Even though de Waal is firmly convinced that empathy is old and is widespread among mammals, not everyone agrees; there is a lively debate about these matters in the literature. Part of the controversy stems from the fact that the term empathy is used to describe a range of phenomena, from emotional contagion (in which one individual “catches” the emotions of another) to what Stephanie D. Preston and de Waal were the first to refer to as cognitive empathy—the ability to understand the feelings of others and to appreciate the distinction between their feelings and our own. Emotional contagion is a primitive form of true empathy, de Waal says; when one baby’s cry sets off a chorus of cries from the other babies in the nursery, that’s emotional contagion. Cognitive empathy is what allows us to understand the anguish of a mother whose child is diagnosed with a terminal illness.

The practical problem is that in any particular case it can be difficult to distinguish between emotional contagion and more elaborate forms of empathy. After all, how do we know what is actually going on in one baby’s head when she hears another baby cry? Nevertheless, the distinction is crucial, because an understanding of others’ needs is a prerequisite for the transformation of empathy into compassionate action. The contagion metaphor can be used to illustrate this point: If you catch a cold from your partner, you’ll share your partner’s symptoms. But feeling the same way as someone else is not the same thing as knowing how that person will want to be treated. To take care of your partner, you need to know whether he or she likes to be coddled when sick or prefers being left alone with a good book. If you have that information, you can be helpful even if you don’t have a cold yourself.

This means that if we want to understand the capacity that other animals have for compassion, we have to figure out what is going on in their heads. Carefully designed experiments have given us some insight into what animals know about the minds of others. For example, Robert Seyfarth and Dorothy Cheney conducted an experiment in which female macaques learned that a box in their enclosure contained a frightening stimulus (a fake snake). Although the mothers were frightened when they came upon the snake and avoided the box afterward, they did not react when their infants approached the box, and they did not warn the infants of the danger the snake presumably represented. Based on these findings, Cheney and Seyfarth concluded that the mothers were unaware that their own knowledge differed from the knowledge of their offspring. The findings of a substantial body of cleverly designed experiments have resulted in a general consensus that monkeys have a less-well-developed understanding of others’ minds than do apes.

The ability of apes to understand others’ minds might allow them to understand others’ specific needs and to act compassionately. De Waal believes that apes do understand others’ needs and that they act compassionately based on that understanding, a conclusion he bases in part on a number of one-time observations, several of which he describes here. For example, he recounts what happened when a female bonobo found a stunned bird in her enclosure. She carried it to the top of a tree, and then “she spread its wings as if it were a little airplane, and sent it out into the air, thus showing a helping action geared to the needs of a bird.”

Although some scientists are dismissive of anecdotal accounts like this one, de Waal argues that they are valuable sources of information, particularly for events that are relatively uncommon in nature. I have no quarrel with this. Richard W. Byrne and Andrew Whiten’s compilation of anecdotal observations of tactical deception in primates in the 1980s had a major impact on our understanding of primate cognitive complexity. I am more concerned about the way we make use of these one-time observations. De Waal argues that “If you have seen something yourself, and followed the entire dynamic, there is usually no doubt in your mind of what to make of it.” But doubt is a healthy part of science. Doubt leads us to construct alternative hypotheses and to design experiments that will allow us to determine which hypotheses are correct.

Consider, for example, one of the best-known instances of animal altruism, which de Waal mentions in the endnotes for chapter 4. A young child tumbled into the gorilla enclosure at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago and lay unconscious on the ground. A female gorilla named Binti Jua picked up the child, cradled him in her arms and brought him to the back of the enclosure, where anxious zoo staff were waiting. The event was videotaped by a visitor to the zoo, and Binti Jua became famous. De Waal describes this as an “act of sympathy” prompted by Binti Jua’s concern for the welfare of the child. But there is more to the story. Binti Jua had been neglected by her own mother, and as a result she was hand-reared by humans. In an effort to improve the chance that she would be a better mother herself, her keepers gave her operant training with a doll; zoo staff rewarded her for holding the doll correctly and bringing it to them for inspection. All of this helped Binti Jua become a competent mother when she had her own infant. However, this piece of her history also raises the possibility that Binti Jua’s behavior during this incident reflected the training she had received rather than her sympathy for the child’s plight. I don’t know which interpretation is correct, but it is important to acknowledge that there are alternative explanations for Binti Jua’s behavior.

More systematic efforts to assess chimpanzees’ concern for the welfare of others have had mixed results. In some experimental settings, chimpanzees do provide appropriate instrumental help to their fellow chimpanzees, but in others they do not—for example, in one experiment chimpanzees failed to deliver food rewards to familiar group members even when they could have done so at no cost to themselves. De Waal endorses the experiments in which the chimpanzees were helpful and dismisses the others as examples of “false negatives.” As the author of one of the sets of experiments in which chimpanzees failed to be helpful, I may not be entirely objective about the value of that work. However, I am convinced that if we really want to understand the nature of empathic concern and compassion in other apes, we need to figure out why chimpanzees respond helpfully in some circumstances and unhelpfully in others. De Waal himself made this argument in his 1996 book, Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals, saying that “for a research program into animal empathy, it is not enough to review the highlights of succorant behavior, it is equally important to consider the absence of such behavior when it might have been expected.”

For de Waal, the debate about whether apes are motivated to help others matters because of its implications for humans. The continuities in empathy between humans and other creatures give him confidence about the prospects for creating a kinder human society:

I derive great optimism from empathy’s evolutionary antiquity. It makes it a robust trait that will develop in virtually every human being so that society can count on it and try to foster and grow it.

If empathy were limited to humans, de Waal says, that would mean that it was a trait that evolved only recently. This concerns him: “If empathy were truly like a toupee put on our head yesterday, my greatest fear would be that it might blow off tomorrow.”

But the existence of emotional contagion in rodents and cognitive empathy in apes is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for there to be cognitive empathy and compassion in humans. Important traits are transformed over the course of evolutionary time. Monkeys and apes have lost function in about one-third of their olfactory receptor genes, greatly reducing the sensitivity of their sense of smell; the apes have lost their tails; brachiating gibbons have greatly shortened thumbs in their hooklike hands; and we humans have lost the ability to grasp things with our feet. At the same time, fundamental traits such as bipedal locomotion, spoken language and cumulative cultural change were all greatly elaborated after the human lineage diverged from the lineage of modern apes. All of these traits, despite their relatively recent origins, have left an indelible mark on our species.

Here de Waal misses the opportunity to explore what makes us different from other apes. We cooperate in larger groups, solve collective action problems, adhere to social norms and possess moral sentiments. Whether or not we inherited the capacity for empathy from our primate ancestors, we have developed these capacities much further than other apes have. Recently, a number of scholars have given a great deal of thought to how and why human societies have become more cooperative than the societies of other primates, but de Waal does not discuss their ideas here. That is a pity, because we need to know the answers to those questions if we want to create kinder societies.

Joan B. Silk is professor and chair of the department of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is coauthor with Robert Boyd of How Humans Evolved, which is now in its fifth edition (W. W. Norton, 2009).

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