Book review: The Age of Empathy, by Frans de Waal

Frans de Waal is a primatologist and ethologist at Emory University. In The Age of Empathy, he argues that empathy is an inherent biological trait, not only for humans, but for other species as well. Due to this, he wants humans to accept this and start treating your fellow beings with dignity and respect.

Overall I enjoyed the book. The introduction can come off as anti-capitalist, but de Waal clarifies what he means later in the book. He is from Europe and has lived in the United States for a long time so he has witnessed the benefits and drawbacks of both economic systems. If pressed, he said that he would have a difficult time choosing which he prefers more. More inequity but more wealth overall and more of an incentive-driven system (United States), versus less inequity, fewer poor but less of an incentive-driven system (Europe).

I think the book brings up a few interesting ideas:

Is empathy involuntary or voluntary?
de Waal argues that it is involuntary and built into our evolutionary make-up. He provides evidence of studies done where humans were asked to view images that scrolled too fast to comprehend. They were images of humans smiling or frowning, but the speed at which they moved prevented the volunteers in deciding which was which. The participants who saw people smiling were happier and vice versa. This is one example of a study that has been done to try to prove if empathy resonates with us when we’re not consciously thinking about it.
Are other species prone to inequity aversion?
Towards the end of the book, de Waal provides some examples of animals that have displayed inequity aversion, which is a dislike when circumstances are not fair. Chimps, for example, will break up fights over food without taking any of the food for themselves. They understand that inequity causes strife, so they stride to ensure everyone is taken care of.
A second example that struck me was the domesticated dog. A study conducted involved two dogs in close proximity. They were both asked to shake but only one was given a reward. The dog who did not receive the reward refused to shake. However, the test was done again without rewards altogether and they both shook, demonstrating that it’s not about rewards but fairness.

One area where I disagree with de Waal is economic/business self interest. Throughout the book, he continually puts down the concept of competition as a necessary aspect of society. He draws a line between competition and charity as if the two are completely distinct. I disagree. I feel you can have a healthy and competitive economic framework alongside altruistic charitable work. Competition leads to greater innovation, which helps move society forward. Then, companies and people alike can donate and volunteer for causes they care for. Also, I feel that being socially responsible has become good business. We’ve seen a backlash against companies that have not been responsible socially or environmentally. They have been forced to change their policies as society grows and matures.

I very much recommend picking up The Age of Empathy. I think the most valuable information is the abundance of evidence for empathy and sympathy in animals. The evidence is only going to grow from here and I am always fascinated by it.


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