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

Frans de Waal / Harmony Books / 291 pages

The topic of empathy is certainly timely given the conflicts of our modern world. In The Age of Empathy, Frans de Waal asks us to consider the role of empathy in political and social issues ranging from Hurricane Katrina to the global economic crisis. Conservative politicians and businessmen have sometimes used “survival of the fittest” arguments as a rationale for capitalist greed, but de Waal argues that our evolutionary history provides a basis for compassion rather than selfishness. Indeed, de Waal uses a mixture of scientific findings and anecdotes to provide fascinating evidence that empathy is deeply embedded in the evolutionary history of humans as well as many nonhuman animals. Numerous animals display emotional contagion, concern for others, and perspective-takingthe key components of empathy. Chimpanzees save the lives of other chimpanzees, capuchin monkeys share food with fellow monkeys, and elephants care for injured herd members.

As compelling as these examples are, any in-depth examination of a single aspect of human (or nonhuman) nature necessarily comes at the expense of ignoring other aspects of our shared nature. De Waal’s discussion is thus heartwarming but limited in scope, revealing only the glowing side of our nature while largely ignoring the darker side. Although he acknowledges that greed and selfishness are part of our nature, de Waal asserts that empathy and compassion must balance them if we are to overcome the challenges facing society. He also focuses relatively little on the long-standing arguments of critics who don’t accept the notion of empathy in nonhuman animals. This is unfortunate since we can really only understand the significance of studying empathy by fully placing it in proper context.

Despite these weaknesses, The Age of Empathy is an intriguing and worthwhile read. Rather than lulling us into a warm and fuzzy sense that we are inherently good, however, I hope this book inspires us through a heightened awareness of the empathy in others. Perhaps through this awareness, we will act with greater empathy and compassion toward the other beings with whom we share the planet.

—by Maureen S. McCarthy, M.S., University of Southern California