Nick Klagge's Reviews > The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society

The Age of Empathy by Frans de Waal
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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 disappointed there either. De Waal's main area of interest is in understanding the evolution of empathy, and particularly, in what forms we can see it or its precursors in other animals--mostly chimpanzees, but many others as well, including elephants, dolphins, and even magpies. The book is largely dedicated to exploring "simple" forms of empathy. We most easily think of empathy as the advanced cognitive practice of "putting yourself in another's shoes," but de Waal tries to show that this is rooted in a variety of simpler precursors--starting with "emotional contagion," rising to "consolation," and finally to "targeted helping". He describes these as a "Russian doll," and also makes some interesting observations on what happens when the doll is "hollow"--when someone has the ability to put themselves in another's place cognitively, but lacks the basic emotional identification, dark things such as torture may arise.

Another concept that de Waal focuses on is "motivational autonomy," by which he means, the fact that just because a behavior evolved for reason X, doesn't mean that when an individual exhibits that behavior, it is for reason X, and even further, it doesn't mean that reason X is the only legitimate reason for practicing the behavior. He uses this concept, which disentangles two quite distinct biological levels of analysis, to defend the existence of true empathy against the (common!) view that all empathic or altruistic behavior is "really" selfish. Thus, while empathy may have developed because on average and in the long run it tends to lead to more survival and reproductive success, it is a category error to assume that these save purposes necessarily motivate individual instances of empathy.

Finally, although the book is subtitled "Lessons for a Kinder Society," de Waal is mercifully brief in his closing section on "what this means for modern society". He doesn't draw big sweeping conclusions (thankfully, he did not write a book called "How Chimpanzees Explain The World" or something like that), and is basically content to present some fascinating research and to suggest that we reconsider individualistic theories of society in its light. That, I think, is just right.
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Reading Progress

April 20, 2011 – Started Reading
April 20, 2011 – Shelved
April 28, 2011 – Finished Reading

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