Past Meetup

The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society by Frans de Waal

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Details

(2010)

Review

"A pioneer in primate studies, Frans de Waal sees our better side in chimps, especially our capacity for empathy. In his research, Dr. de Waal has gathered ample evidence that our ability to identify with another's distress -- a catalyst for compassion and charity -- has deep roots in the origin of our species. It is a view independently reinforced by recent biomedical studies showing that our brains are built to feel another's pain."
—Robert Lee Hotz, The Wall Street Journal

“It’s hard to feel the pain of the next guy. First, you have to notice that he exists…then realize that he has different thoughts than you…and different emotions…and that he needs help…and that you should help because you’d like the same done for you…and, wait, did I remember to lock the car?…and… Empathy is often viewed as requiring cognitive capacities for things like theory of mind, perspective taking and the golden rule, implying that empathy is pretty much limited to humans, and is a fairly fragile phenomenon in us. For decades, Frans de Waal has generated elegant data and thinking that show that this is wrong. In this superb book, he shows how we are not the only species with elements of those cognitive capacities, empathy is as much about affect as cognition, and our empathic humanity has roots far deeper than our human-ness.”
—Robert Sapolsky, author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers and A Primate’s Memoir

"The endeavor has majesty. It also affirms a very unmajestic human experience: Our emotions are a mess. Of course they are—they are accumulated bits of psychic life thrown together over millions of years by evolution with no oversight or quality control about what they actually feel like. Just because we have a single word for a feeling or trait now doesn't mean that it is homogenous or discrete.
Developing an appreciation of this complexity, de Waal suggests, could actually combat one of the least helpful of human tendencies: the impulse—not innate but socially very contagious—to reductively assume our biology is bad."
—Christine Kenneally, Slate

"De Waal...culls an astounding volume of research that deflates the human assumption that animals lack the characteristics often referred to as 'humane.' He cites recent animal behavior studies that challenge the 'primacy of human logic' and put animals on a closer behavioral footing with humans.....Throughout the book, de Waal illustrates how behaving more like our wild mammalian cousins may just save humanity. His contention, colored by philosophical musings and fascinating anecdotes of observed emotional connections between animals, argues persuasively that humans are not greedy or belligerent because animals are; such traits are far from organic or inevitable but patently manmade."
—Publisher's Weekly