Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Empathy YES, Human greed NO !

  Book Review:  Frans De Waal: The Age of Empathy –
nature’s lessons for a kinder society   [2009,  293pp]

This American paperback collates the evidence from recent experiments in the animal world to show that empathy – a technical name for sympathy – is in fact a built-in basis for animal and human nature. He thus attacks the prevailing ideology of greed and competition, and confirms the alternative libertarian philosophy. Though his publication is libertarian, De Waal is mainly concerned with refuting conventional opinion and includes only passing references to classical writers.

The author is a prominent primatologist – scientist studying animal behaviour - and writes from many years’ experience. His book has some unusual features but has been widely reviewed including an article in Freedom in June 2012. The first five chapters collect evidence from experiments, institutional events, direct accounts from the wild and anecdotes from other scientists. Unless people are qualified in this subject, readers will  have to take the text at face value here, though many may find it confirms their views and/or experience. 

De Waal’s writing confirms the almost universal existence of empathy among elephants, dolphins, some whales, some primates and some birds. His evidence is overwhelming for these groups. Other animals show only partially developed  capacity and must await more research. On the main theme, however, the facts are increasingly well known, and, as this is a science, may be readily believed. We should all know about the dolphins protecting swimmers from sharks, the astonishing elephant mourning of dead family members, the apes regularly responding to their keepers’ experiments, the large brained magpies able to recognise added adornment in mirrors and whales thanking their saviours.

This section also includes effective attacks on conventional psychologists and their writings which is particularly satisfactory. De Waal also concludes that the empathy  tendency is not just an evolved development but lies deep in human psyche – he is always drawing conclusions for humans today and aligns himself  with radical opinion. ”We are all born as revolutionaries”, he concludes. These chapters make pleasant reading even for those without formal affiliations, as he plumps for “enlightened self interest”.

In the final two chapters, he applies his ideas more openly. Conventional social writings are critically examined and those who depend on their version of “human nature“ like Milton Friedman roundly condemned. Accounts of chimps jumping into water to save others completely confound even progressives like Richard Dawkins who ramble on about ‘selfish genes’. New perspectives present themselves in sharp contrast to the newspaper headline world.

There are many paragraphs worth quoting but the best perhaps is a startling analysis of soldiers in war. He shows that a huge majority of soldiers, despite the movies, are averse to killing, fire deliberately to miss and apparently believe that taking human life is just unacceptable. This astonishing concept runs entirely counter to aspects of popular ideology, as created by the film industry and politicians’ propaganda but my own brief military experience of the call-up, albeit in peace, confirms the lack of interest in guns, etc. This is ground-breaking stuff.

The reader should know of the unusual construction of the book. There is at the end of the volume a whole section of “un-annotated” notes to the text. These are not indicated by any means and while some are just reading references, many do elaborate the source of the anecdotes etc, and provide further proofs. The reading references unfortunately are compartmentalised into chapter headings but are generous in their content. The book is in paperback format, costs around £12 but is widely discounted in bookshops. Well worth reading or even as a present.

Finally what of the implications of his work? Offering himself the chance to further promote libertarianism, he declines the opportunity and wishes only for a decline in popular chauvinism that so often reflects past ideas. While this is a worthwhile project and perhaps we would all join him, libertarian readers need not be so modest. This reviewer  backs the conclusion that De Waal validates Peter Kropotkin’s ‘Mutual Aid ‘ and would surely look towards a movement that takes us in the direction of an anarchist/libertarian future that the prolific Russian believed in. As well as a ‘kinder society’, we want a fairer and more controlled one too.

Review by Alan Woodward.

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