Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Nature's lessons for a more kind society.

Blog reader Gary Olson has pointed me to his review of Franz De Waal's new book
"The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons For A Kinder Society." From that review:
de Waal provides compelling support for the proposition that humans are “preprogrammed to reach out.” From dolphins ferrying injured companions to safety and grieving elephants, baboons and cats (yes, even cats) to commiserating mice and hydrophobic chimps risking death to save a drowning companion, this is a major contribution to understanding the biological genesis of our inborn capacity for empathy, hence morality.

In seven crisply written and wholly accessible chapters de Waal methodically demolishes the rationale behind Gordon Gekko’s admonition in the film "Wall Street" that greed “captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.”...De Waal objects to an unrestrained market system, not capitalism itself. He prefers that the economic system be mitigated by more attention to empathy in order to soften its rough edges...Nevertheless, de Waal seriously underestimates certain capitalist imperatives and the role played by elites in cultivating callousness, thereby undermining social solidarity, reciprocity and empathy. Capitalist culture devalues an empathic disposition, and, as Erich Fromm argued some fifty years ago, there is a basic incompatibility between the underlying principles of capitalism and the lived expression of an ethos of empathy.


  1. Starting a little earlier with childhood and emphasising the importance of empathy is Gerald Huther in his book "The compassionate brain" (2003, originally titled "operating manual for a human brain")
    The book is a little digressive but his general deductions are totally convincing and catchy!

    More here:

  2. Anonymous4:58 AM

    I agree with what you wrote but there is a thin line between becoming more empathetic and becoming a sucker for parasitic people. For example, the average street person costs the USA taxpayer approx. $75,000/year to support. The rich play the parasite game too. For example, by encouraging illegal immigration for cheap labor and then dumping care of the immigrants' children onto middle class taxpayers.

    Empathy did not evolve as a mechanism to enhance the success of human parasites. It evolved to help the success of communities.