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Authors: Frans de Waal

The Age of Empathy

BOOK: The Age of Empathy
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ALSO BY FRANS DE WAAL

Primates and Philosophers
(2006)

Our Inner Ape
(2005)

My Family Album
(2003)

The Ape and the Sushi Master
(2001)

Bonobo
(1997)

Good Natured
(1996)

Peacemaking among Primates
(1989)

Chimpanzee Politics
(1982)

For Catherine, who makes me laugh

Preface

Greed is out, empathy is in.

The global financial crisis of 2008, together with the election of a new American president, has produced a seismic shift in society. Many have felt as if they were waking up from a bad dream about a big casino where the people’s money had been gambled away, enriching a happy few without the slightest worry about the rest of us. This nightmare was set in motion a quarter century earlier by Reagan-Thatcher trickle-down economics and the soothing reassurance that markets are wonderful at self-regulation. No one believes this anymore.

American politics seems poised for a new epoch that stresses cooperation and social responsibility. The emphasis is on what unites a society, what makes it worth living in, rather than what material wealth we can extract from it. Empathy is the grand theme of our time, as reflected in the speeches of Barack Obama, such as when he told graduates at Northwestern University, in Chicago: “I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit. … It’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realize your true potential.”

The message of
The Age of Empathy
is that human nature offers a
giant helping hand in this endeavor. True, biology is usually called upon to justify a society based on selfish principles, but we should never forget that it has also produced the glue that holds communities together. This glue is the same for us as for many other animals. Being in tune with others, coordinating activities, and caring for those in need isn’t restricted to our species. Human empathy has the backing of a long evolutionary history—which is the second meaning of “age” in this book’s title.

Biology, Left and Right

What is government itself but the greatest of all
reflections on human nature?


JAMES MADISON
, 1788

A
re we our brothers’ keepers? Should we be? Or would this role only interfere with why we are on earth, which according to economists is to consume and produce, and according to biologists is to survive and reproduce? That both views sound similar is logical given that they arose at around the same time, in the same place, during the English Industrial Revolution. Both follow a competition-is-good-for-you logic.

Slightly earlier and slightly to the north, in Scotland, the thinking was different. The father of economics, Adam Smith, understood as no other that the pursuit of self-interest needs to be tempered by “fellow feeling.” He said so in
The Theory of Moral Sentiments,
a book not nearly as popular as his later work
The Wealth of Nations.
He famously opened his first book with:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.

The French revolutionaries chanted of
fraternité,
Abraham Lincoln appealed to the bonds of sympathy, and Theodore Roosevelt spoke glowingly of fellow feeling as “the most important factor in producing a healthy political and social life.” But if this is true, why is this sentiment sometimes ridiculed as being, well, sentimental? A recent example occurred after Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana in 2005. While the American people were transfixed by the unprecedented catastrophe, one cable news network saw fit to ask if the Constitution actually provides for disaster relief. A guest on the show argued that the misery of others is none of our business.

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