What We Do | ISF Perspectives



We hear about empathy more and more these days; there is even a travelling museum of empathy. But long before the media landed on it, Frans de Waal, one of the world’s leading primatologists and the discoverer that animals perform reconciliation, wrote this book summing up years of research and insights by himself and others in the roots of empathy in our animal inheritance. De Waal – who thinks of humans as animals with some special characteristics, rather than a separate category – belongs to that group of scientists who have shown us that things we ‘worship’ as supremely human and of a higher nature are actually shared with animals. This means that we are only being normal, not virtuous, when we are empathetic. It also means that lack of empathy is not just subhuman, it’s subanimal. And that is an important point.

De Waal tells a fascinating story about how he and his colleagues spent a long time building a brand new, wooden, super tall and interesting play area for the chimps they were studying. The scientists even made bets on who would climb the high pole first. They were so sure the chimps would love their new playpen that they were shocked when the animals were finally let out. After having been segregated from each other, locked up while the building was carried out, the chimps hugged and kissed each other to celebrate their meeting after so many days apart. Then the dominant males started asserting themselves, and after that they ambled over to the old enclosure with its paltry steel beams and low-rise architecture, simply enjoying each other’s company. The scientists had overlooked the fact that chimps are more sophisticated than children. They care about each other more than some random place to run around in. It actually took several months before the chimps finally moved over to their new play area. Animals, it seems, can teach us how to be better humans, and institutions that encourage non-empathetic or attenuated empathetic behaviour – the norm in some parts of the corporate world – are subhuman and need to change.

This is why we are living in the age of empathy. For too long, left-brain conceptions of ‘efficiency’ and cost cutting have dominated our institutions. Not only is it short sighted, it is profoundly damaging, and the surge of interest in empathy in the last twenty years is a natural reaction to this celebration of essentially psychopathic traits. Animals have shown us, through the patient observations of Frans de Waal and others, that selfishness, far from being some genetically fundamental rock of behaviour, is better thought of as the absence of empathy and selfless cooperation, both of which occur widely in the primate world.

Misreading Adam Smith – a favourite pastime of economists – has led to a kind of blindness about what Smith regarded as the polishing agents of society: sympathy, honesty, justice and morality. The wheels may be turned by commerce, but they grate and seize when vices flourish. Virtue, on the other hand, polishes the gears and allows commercial mechanisms to run freely. No market can run on selfish principles alone; it requires profound cooperation and mature human relationships.

The modern age can be characterised by the pursuit of one prime ‘cause’ after another to explain the mysteries of existence. Be it evolution, the unconscious, or the invisible hand of capitalism – all have provided an abstract and partial explanation of life, but one that inevitably falls far short of a satisfying account of life in its true complexity and wonder. We tear the wings off a butterfly, label its parts, and deny there was ever a butterfly at all. Empathy studies serve to connect seemingly disparate behaviour. We cannot ignore what de Waal calls ‘the second invisible hand’ – the feeling that one human cannot be indifferent to another – if we want to build any kind of community. It seems obvious, like many good ideas. But demonstrating that even animals practice empathy at last puts this behaviour on a ‘scientific’ footing. And in our left-brain world, what science uncovers, the journalists write about and the politicians eventually (years later) enact. So let us hope for good things coming our way…

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