The Age of Empathy

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Frans de Waal, Souvenir Press, £18.99

This is a welcome and timely riposte to the currently dominant sociobiological accounts of human nature from an interesting perspective.

In contrast to evolutionary psychologists who attempt to explain the sometimes brutal and destructive aspects of our society by locating them in a naturally aggressive and fearful human psyche, de Waal challenges "macho myths" and "western origin stories" by exploring the human potential for kindness. He states, "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 in place," asking, "What kind of animals are we?"

De Waal's answer to this question leads to a slightly more flexible and optimistic view of human nature. He argues that the often accepted portrayal of human nature as "red in tooth and claw" neglects the important role of empathy in the evolution of our species. Drawing extensively on animal studies, de Waal relays the evidence from these along with psychological studies and his own anecdotal reflections in an engaging style. He builds up the argument that humans would simply not have survived without our capacity to cooperate as social animals.

He argues that this capacity relies on our ability to empathise with others who form our social group. Using an analogy of Russian dolls to unpick what he views as the multi-layered concept of empathy, de Waal distinguishes fairly intuitive, instinctive processes such as "emotional contagion" ("the ancient tendency to match each other's emotional state") from more sophisticated, higher-level capacities of "consolation" (feeling concern for others) and "perspective taking", where we mentally separate ourselves from the object of our empathy to offer "targeted help". He argues that these more complex processes contain and build upon those at the core.

In understanding humans as social animals, de Waal also offers some clarity on the false dichotomy between egoism and altruism: "The selfish/unselfish divide may be a red herring. Why try to extract the self from the other, or the other from the self, if the merging of the two is the secret behind our cooperative nature?"

While de Waal is clearly politically engaged and aware of the impact of historical context on other biologists' views, at times he seems to lack insight into how his own context might be affecting his conclusions. This seems particularly acute in his understanding of gender. Due to a culturally reductionist caricature of Marxism and some biological essentialism concerning de Waal's view of women as having a greater propensity to empathise because of the "maternal instinct", this book is occasionally frustrating. Nonetheless, de Waal has made a useful contribution to current debates about whether human nature has the potential to permit society to be different, even if this is not an aspiration he personally shares.