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The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society

3.98  ·  Rating details ·  1,894 ratings  ·  167 reviews
"An important and timely message about the biological roots of human kindness."
—Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape

Are we our brothers' keepers? Do we have an instinct for compassion? Or are we, as is often assumed, only on earth to serve our own survival and interests? In this thought-provoking book, the acclaimed author of Our Inner Ape examines how empathy comes nat
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published September 22nd 2009 by Crown (first published January 1st 2009)
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Riku Sayuj

Our Animal Nature: A Glass Half-full Approach

This book is primarily a detailed exploration of animal emotions (such as empathy) and on how they stunningly correspond to the human.

Two main threads of thought emerge from this correspondence:

1. The need to recognize animals as much closer to us and to treat them with that respect, empathy and humaneness.

2. An optimism that the better angels of our nature are as deep-wired in us as the baser instincts that we call ‘animal instincts’. Both aspects
Oct 31, 2009 rated it it was amazing
You've got to love a book about primates that has chapter headings with quotes by Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant. And that's why this book is so exceptional, it makes you reconsider what is so special about our species in the first place and whether the Western concept of human exceptionalism is even a healthy trait to begin with.

Are concepts of justice, equality and empathy really glorious creations of the enlightenment or are they simply labels for phenomena that occur across the animal kingdom?
Sep 19, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Every once in a while, when your heart is heavy with all the fighting and hatred and envy and competition and the nastiness of your fellow humans, it is good to read about the kindness of other animals (besides man). Yes, there is plenty of cruelty in nature but there is also cooperation, compassion and loyalty. It's so fascinating (and so healing) to read example after example of animals caring for each other. Oh, and Franz de Waal, a biologist, writes with humor and clarity.
Nov 09, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: finished
Reading this book constantly reminded me of our arrogance to consider that animals are not conscious, feeling beings. The author, a primatologist, does a great job recounting decades of animal research to back up his claim that both humans and our related animal cousins have a long history of community, social structure and organization, and responsibility to that community. He does an excellent job providing empirical research evidence that demonstrates that many species, particularly the great ...more
Hákon Gunnarsson
Feb 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: animals, non-fiction
This is the second book by Frans de Waal that I read, and I like his work so much that he is fast becoming one of my favorite non fiction writer. He is very good at writing about animals, and the research that is being done into their behavior, a subject that I’m quite interested in. He does it with a lot of anecdotes, and lot of reference to scientific research, in a writing style that is never dry.

In this book he is looking into animal emotions, but there is a twist. This book is written in t
Nov 02, 2009 rated it really liked it
Is it just me, or does current non-fiction contain way too many personal anecdotes. Do I really care about something that happened to your brother-in-law? "Hot, Crowded, and Flat" was chock full of them. The difference between that work and "The Age of Empathy" is that there is some actual science behind de Waal's work. The "Age of Empathy" is really about several different emotions and traits thought to be uniquely human like empathy, sympathy, self awareness, sense of fair play, and egalitaria ...more
Dec 15, 2013 rated it it was ok
I read this for our "science book club" meeting, and we all agreed that this book was not up to snuff. It was like they sat the author down in a comfy chair and said "Just start talking, we'll put your ramblings together into a book." There was not structure or framework to the book -- no overriding thesis (other than maybe "empathy is good, chimps have empathy, people should be more empathetic" -- so it was difficult to pull apart and analyze his arguments. He doesn't present enough scientific ...more
Nov 26, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Frans de Waal is (almost) singlehandedly turning upside down the long-held notion of humans (and other animals) as supremely selfish, concerned only with their own survival, and perhaps survival of their offspring. de Waal finds instead huge amounts of empathy, cooperation, and concern amongst species, amongst tribal and other groups, and amongst families. de Waal has studied primates for years, and just about everything we thought was unique to humans also shows up in monkeys. They can count, t ...more
Murali Behara
Oct 11, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: scientist
Indeed it is extraordinary how the horses and sled-dogs cooperate with each other and act in unison drawing the carriage or the sled at breakneck speeds, on cross-country pathways! Especially the blind-husky, Isobel who ran the lead tandem?! In Dutch bicycle-culture, it is very common for boys to offer girls a ride, because the girls have to hold on tight, and also lean with the rider says, Dr. Frans de Waal, who is a Dutchman himself, who continues, "On motorcycles this is even more critical. T ...more
Richard Williams
Feb 24, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: library, science
borrow the book, read chapter 7, "crooked timber" for an excellent summary of what the author intents us to understand from his book. then read the whole thing. worthwhile reading.

the genre: science with a social purpose. first, to show us the latest science of empathy, and second to dispel the idea that humans are so unique to be a mountain range emerging from the plains of other creatures, but rather we are like a high peak surrounded by smaller ones, then foothills, then lower hills. those cr
Jenni Holland
Jun 13, 2013 rated it it was amazing
The Age of Empathy delves into social, economic, and political concerns of our time. By unlocking the the science of empathy in all mammals, Frans de Waal challenges the notion that greed and aggression are the dominate forces of human biology and survival. He gives of a new story of mammalian evolution, in which cooperation and empathy play a prominent role. Empathy becomes a much older and primal instinct, and much more relevant to our species.

Waal knocks down those who use the idea of "survi
Oct 24, 2009 rated it really liked it
This is the first book I’ve read by Frans de Waal. It is written in simple, accessible language and is positively stuffed with provocative ideas and anecdotal stories. The premise, that empathetic behaviors and tendencies predate our evolutionary pedigree, directly addresses underrepresented views in both evolutionary biology as well as popular conceptions of our own animal nature. I found his unapologetic attitude about the political implications of his work to be personally refreshing and scie ...more
Jun 01, 2013 rated it really liked it
Frans de Waal and Tanja Singer - The book "The Age of Empathy" is a light in the dark - there is no justification treating another living creature in contemptuous ways. Tanja Singer proves that empathy can be trained and learned and become part of our thinking and acting. We do not need to treat others badly to have personal gain. A very worthwhile thought, giving us hope that there is indeed a way to improve ourselves and make life more peaceful.

May 11, 2017 rated it really liked it
The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society By Frans de Waal

“The Age of Empathy” is an interesting look at human empathy and what it can teach us how in becoming a better society. Dutch/American biologist with a Ph.D. in zoology and ethology and author of Our Inner Ape and others, Frans de Waal, takes the reader on a journey of empathy and its long evolutionary history. This provocative 306-page book includes the following seven chapters: 1. Biology, Left and Right, 2. The Other Da
Stephen Stilwell
Jul 23, 2019 rated it liked it
Empathy and cooperation come naturally to us and play a big part in why we’re here today. Is caring for our fellow humans something that comes naturally to us? Turn on any news feed, and it seems unlikely. The truth is we likely wouldn’t be here if our default behavior was to be insensitive and uncompassionate to our fellow humans. Biology and history both support that we as humans have a strong sense of compassion and cooperation that tend to be an instinct for us. Consider parenting where empa ...more
Abigail McAlister
Aug 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is my second Frans De Waal book and I am still incredibly impressed with his work. He does such a great job of taking complex ideas and presenting them SO clearly. He leans hard into the ethos argument, as he proves over and over his authority based on his experience working with primates. This helps to support his argument, in addition to the familial tone he writes in. I never felt talked down too, I never felt confused by his ideas or the connections he was making. I also like his repeti ...more
May 16, 2020 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Loose and lazy. The anecdotes rarely support clear theses let alone lessons. The whole is breathtakingly ignorant of social science and philosophy.
Kent Winward
Feb 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing
What does it say about us that the primatologist is more enlightening on the human condition than pretty much anyone else?
Nick Klagge
Apr 20, 2011 rated it really liked it
I loved this book, and it was an interesting contrast to read it immediately after another popular-consumption book by a biologist (which I didn't like), "Why We Run" by Bernd Heinrich. Frans de Waal comes across as warm, engaging, the kind of guy who would be welcome at your dinner party. I laughed aloud at his somewhat odd Dutch humor a couple of times. His little hand-drawn sketches are also a charming touch.

The subject matter, of course, is what interested me in the first place, and I wasn't
May 07, 2010 rated it really liked it
Nature is well known as "red in tooth and claw." Yet many organisms exhibit remarkable cooperative behavior:

1. A cat makes daily rounds in a geriatric clinic in Providence, Rhode Island, sniffing and observing each patient, and then selecting one to curl up and purr beside. The cat has nurtured at least 25 patients, sensing with uncanny accuracy when one is about to die .

2. In an experiment at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, chimpanzees at a sanctuary in Uganda were shown a human u
Apr 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I really enjoyed this book about the research on empathy and "how empathy comes naturally to our species". It takes a look at human society and why we band together (in particular, through Waal's research on primates).

Security is the first and foremost reason for social life. This brings me to the second false origin myth: that human society is the voluntary creation of autonomous men. The illusion here is that our ancestors had no need for anybody else. They led uncommitted lives. Their only pr
Jan 02, 2012 rated it really liked it
Empathy, argues Dr. De Waal, is not unique to humans. It is, instead, something that can be found throughout the animal kingdom in a variety of forms, and we humans are remiss to not look at the positive traits we share with animals. I’ve heard plenty about the negative traits we share with animals, and it was fascinating (and refreshing) to read the opposite spin – that getting in touch with our animalistic instincts can, in fact, be a very good thing. This book was enlightening to me, especial ...more
Sep 01, 2013 rated it really liked it
Chimps have it. Elephants have it. Wolves have it. De Waal suggests the reason we don’t recognize that empathy imbues at least the mammalian world is because of the Western world’s religious insistence that humans are outside of nature. He reports that when Queen Victoria first saw apes, she called them “frightful, and painfully and disagreeably human.’” (207). Lot lurking in that queenly observation.

De Waal believes that “empathy is a part of a heritage as ancient as the mammalian line. Empath
Oct 20, 2014 rated it really liked it
A lot of people assume that humans are naturally selfish (see: classic economics, social darwinists, Ayn Randians, etc.) Frans de Waal tries to prove that this is not really the case, that though we may be selfish sometimes, empathy is a natural emotion that occurs in humans and even some non-humans. De Waal being a primatologist, this book focuses primarily on primates, though he does cover some other species (dolphins, whales, elephants, dogs) and humans. He makes a very convincing argument th ...more
Nov 02, 2009 rated it it was amazing
I am so grateful that a scientist took it upon himself to write this book. It is an up-to-date explanation of the root of human empathy, its widespread existence among other animals, and its implications for human society. Most notably, this book concludes that there are two hands guiding human society: 1) the invisible hand of the market and 2) the hand of compassion. Scientific investigations have time and again concluded that people tend toward cooperation, a sense of fairness, and sharing mo ...more
Jan 14, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
I first read Our Inner Ape, then went out and bought The Ape and The Sushi Master plus this book, because I loved the author and the subject matter so much.
So this review is going to be a general review of all the Frans de Waal books listed above,
also it's been a while since I read them and my copies are loaned or given away.

Fascinating. Informative. I learned a great deal about Bonobos, humanoid psychology & evolution, and what behaviors are learned versus inborn.

The best part is these books ar
Shonna Froebel
Nov 17, 2012 rated it really liked it
The author is a biologist who uses his studies of social behaviours in animals as a basis for the study of empathy. He argues that empathy comes naturally to humans as well as many animals. Acknowledging that there is far more research that needs to be done, he nevertheless shows that there is a solid base for further research on a variety of animals.
While many have argued that humans are, by nature, selfish, looking out for themselves at the expense of others, de Waal argues against this, and
Dec 29, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Michel by: Doug Simpson
Shelves: eleole, pol
After the Xmas 06 tsunami, European psychologists flocked to the sites in an attempt to help survivors with their PTSD.
They discovered that talking with afflicted people one-on-one was in fact INCREASING their stress, further isolating them from their social responsibility.
They eventually realized they had to treat villages as a whole as the social unit, facilitating their taking care of each other, rather than helping individuals.
Because we forgot that our happiness is heavily dependent on that
Bob Prophet
Jan 18, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
This has become one of my favorite books, purchased in audiobook format, listened to twice. Excellent! Gave it as a gift to two people this year. This book discusses the origins of empathy and illustrates its importance in the evolution of human beings and other animals. We certainly didn't get this far by preying on one another and competing incessantly, even if that is the version of "human nature" we're peddled these days to justify and rationalize the systems and institutions currently in pl ...more
Heather Denkmire
Apr 02, 2010 rated it really liked it
There were so many variations on qualities related to empathy, it was a little overwhelming. Overall, though, the key point I appreciated was that empathy began (as did the more studied aggression and play) as a physical response. It's not some higher level function only humans possess. I'm most interested in the resistance people have to considering empathy a strength and this addresses that issue quite well.
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Frans de Waal has been named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. The author of Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, among many other works, he is the C. H. Candler Professor in Emory University’s Psychology Department and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

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25 likes · 6 comments
“So, don’t believe anyone who says that since nature is based on a struggle for life, we need to live like this as well. Many animals survive not by eliminating each other or keeping everything for themselves, but by cooperating and sharing. This applies most definitely to pack hunters, such as wolves or killer whales, but also to our closest relatives, the primates.” 17 likes
“Robin Hood had it right.Humanity's deepest wish is to spread the wealth.” 13 likes
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