Why We Should Follow the Ape Inside

The PsycheMedia

Warfare, murder, battles, hatred. If we glimpse at humanity’s past, we find an arsenal of evidence supporting the claim that humans are selfish, violent creatures by nature.

After all, every civilization in history has been linked to a kind of violence, whether it be slavery, armed conquest, or depredation and inequality.

This is why Frans de Waal’s theory is so revolutionary. While mankind has often thought of itself as having fought through millennia, achieving success through competition and warfare, de Waal makes the argument that cooperation, not competition, is actually our innate drive. The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons For a Kinder Society presents this perspective on the issue of how nature drives our actions. De Waal is a primatologist in the psychology department of Emory University, probably best known for his work with bonobos, great apes of the chimpanzee species, whose genetic structure is most closely related to humans. Indeed, de Waal does not fail to include his furry friends in his book since primates of all shapes and colors exhibit a distinctly similar trait: empathy. Once thought to be a solely human characteristic, de Waal’s comprehensive analysis shows that there may be a reason why empathy is so innate.

Empathy can be traced back millions of years to our mammalian roots. This form of interspecies, and even cross-species, connection has nourished us through the generations, allowing the boundaries between individuals to dissolve, and giving intimacy to cooperation. Our capacity to place ourselves in the shoes of others has given mammals (along with birds, bees, and select other species) a distinct survival advantage that other wild creatures do not have.

The Age of Empathy is a narrative that includes a combination of technical explanations for natural phenomena followed by observations and statistical data. While de Waal’s anecdotes are intriguing and even amusing at times, factual evidence is always present. All his quotes are properly attributed to their respective speakers, from film characters like Gordon Gekko to primatologists, with scientific backing to support the anecdotes. The chapters are sequential beginning with the earliest theories of empathy (i.e. those of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer) and progressing to more modern understanding, such as the theories of animal psychology. Even his case studies begin as stories and as scientific jargon is slowly incorporated into the tale, the reader slowly begins to understand the point de Waal tries to explain.

There are moments when de Waal elaborates on topics he covered in previous chapters, such as the philosophy behind sympathy as well as theories of the mind. These serve to provide extra emphasis on these important theories of animal psychology. He inserts dozens of hand-drawn illustrations of apes to monkeys engaging in simple problem-solving behavior and other difficult concepts to provide a lighthearted respite from the more serious topics. His systematic approach to the political and cultural sides of the history of human empathy takes the reader on a step-by-step journey through the lanes of our history and into the heart of the human mind.

Not only does the book deliver a thorough explanation of why animals, including humans, seek to understand and feel empathy in situations where we cannot perceive the pain of others, it also offers a look into the history of evolution and how it influenced the development of empathy. Taking a plethora of examples from his own work with primates, de Waal has assembled an impressive collection of curious anecdotes. For instance, popular novelist J.K. Rowling describes how she heard a man scream after he was told his mother had been executed. This story is told in conjunction with the scientific explanation of mirror neurons and how the human body is inclined to mimic what it senses, both emotionally and physically. Other examples he utilized were the studies done on monkeys to demonstrate community concern or selfishness.

He contends that we have descended from a line of primates who made compromises as a means of survival. He claims that since ancient times it has actually been more beneficial for humans to work together. In primate communities he has observed groups, traditionally antagonistic to one another, coming together and working for a common cause. This was one of the many instances in which he illustrated the workings of the human mind with the actions of a primate.

One of de Waal’s pet topics was the progression of empathy through the ages. One striking example was about a mother ape that could not care for her offspring, even in the face of danger, because the part of her brain that controlled empathy — a portion of her cerebral cortex — had been damaged. The offspring was already at high risk for death before it was able to fend for itself. A mother must be emotionally connected to her children to ensure their survival. The female hormone oxytocin seems to play a role in this, demonstrating the unbreakable link between biochemicals and emotions. All mammals are capable of showing some sort of empathy, even if only at a basic level. Whether it is simply the transmission of fear throughout a group of animals, or the “virus” of happiness, emotions are tightly bound to the development of animals. Of course, the idea that animals have emotions in the first place is still controversial. Strict behaviorists question why consciousness is necessary when stimulus-based response is sufficient for survival. De Waal casts a light on these skeptical views of animal psychology.

De Waal also casts an insightful light on human selfishness, with an explanation about a terrifying experiment in the 1920s where babies were withheld emotional interaction. These so-called baby farms were started by an American child behaviorist, John Watson, who began this nightmarish experiment early in his career. He conditioned a nine-month-old baby dubbed “Little Albert,” whom he had chosen from a hospital, to fear furry animals. Watson presumed that infants should be raised according to scientific principles without the interference of parents. His belief was that parents “over-kissed” their children for sexual reasons. The experimental babies were kept in isolation, separated by white sheets, and denied any visual or auditory stimulation. The theory was that infants were weakened by emotional contact with their mothers. If a baby was to be reared correctly it should be done with no emotion whatsoever. Unfortunately, his baby-farms only produced infants with immobile, expressionless faces. They had a near 100% mortality rate, and ethics aside, prove that emotions are a necessary element of human development.

In addition to Watson, de Waal is highly antagonistic to the Gordon Gekko character, from the film Wall Street, and those who believe greed is good. “The point is, ladies and gentleman,” Gekko says in the film, “that greed — for lack of a better word — is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms — greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge — has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed — you mark my words — [will save that] malfunctioning corporation called the USA.” Not only does de Waal convince the readers about the absurdity of this statement, he goes on to prove why cooperation is better than quarreling for the upper hand.

Presenting a new outlook on the philosophy of our age, The Age of Empathy is a gem among current philosophical and scientific explorations of the human mind, a worthy member of the ranks of authors such as the revolutionary Ulric Neisser and George A. Miller. De Waal’s scientifically backed anecdotes and case studies display his expertise in areas of the mind influenced by our primeval roots. Nevertheless, readers may still be skeptical about his work; when does one go too far in making assumptions? He claims that we possess an innate sense of empathy that eclipses our selfish nature and need for warfare, but theories can only go so far. While he supports fostering empathy, his egalitarian arguments never seem to surface in the wake of today’s society. His ideas of mutual cooperation are difficult to imagine, especially in a society where we have come to expect the most aggressive members of our community, as opposed to the most cooperative members, to be the most successful. De Waal makes a fine argument that humans ought to be more empathic towards each other but for practical purposes his theories fall flat.

This book would be of great interest to young adults and those interested in social science, politics, and human development. While The Age of Empathy may not be the most scholarly of readings, it is certainly a guide that is well worth one’s time. Although some of the more convoluted passages may require more thought and a keen understanding of philosophy, de Waal ensures that even the most difficult sections are thoroughly explored. There is no doubt that this is an excellent book with its simple but effective message: follow the ape inside.

Sharon Lin is currently a student at Stuyvesant High School. She is a member of the editorial board for KidSpirit and enjoys pursuing the answers to the spiritual questions of life. She can often be found in the corner of a café, behind a pair of dark rimmed glasses, with a notebook and gel pen in hand.

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