Frans de Waal's The Age of Empathy.

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 5 2009 7:03 AM

How Nice Are We?

What chimps can teach us about our mess of emotions.

The Age of Empathy by Frans de Waal.

Frans de Waal, director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, believes that it's just as natural to be nice as it is be mean. Man may be wolf to man, as the old saying has it, but de Waal points out with casual eloquence in The Age of Empathy that wolves are often quite lovely to one another.

The scientific history of good nature in humans and other animals is a notably short one. Feelings like sympathy and concern, as well as acts of charity and nurture, have traditionally been ignored or dismissed. The study of niceness was a casualty of the Behaviorist school of psychology in the early 20th century, which defined the cognitive and emotional lives of animals out of existence altogether.

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Philosophy and religion, as well as science, have long suggested that caring and kindness do not come from our biology but instead are ways in which we overcome our biology: Niceness is a refinement. Contrast the ease with which aggression, domination, and violence are attributed to our DNA. In the era of the "selfish gene," any animal altruism gets recast as self-interest in disguise. The columnist David Brooks has summarized the findings like this: "From the content of our genes, the nature of our neurons and the lessons of evolution, it has become clear that nature is filled with competition and conflicts of interest."

But lately scientists, from biologists to psychologists—with de Waal at the forefront—have begun suggesting that nature is filled with compassion, too. This isn't a mere pendulum swing to warmth and cuddliness. Research on social animals—like elephants, dolphins, baboons, chimpanzees (deWaal's specialty), and even hyenas—has complicated what has for too long been a reductive picture. These animals participate in dynamic societies made up of individuals, and their lives are replete with feelings, decisions, and intentions, rooted in biology yet elaborated in cooperative—and competitive—interaction. By comparing their worlds, with each other and with our own, de Waal explains, we can learn about the true anatomy of the social psyche. The result should deliver a jolt: Nature isn't so red in tooth and claw, and civilization may not be so neatly edifying. In fact, if we have a destructive impulse to watch out for, it may be our readiness to embrace the "civilized" view that deep down we're horrible.

De Waal, whose office sits perched atop the perimeter of a chimpanzee compound, has written extensively about the mutable hierarchies, loyal alliances, and intensely complicated politics of chimpanzee life. Like other primatologists, he has also observed that many deeply felt human attitudes and ideas have suggestive precursors in chimpanzee behavior. Here's one that David Brooks might like: Ownership, it seems, is a profoundly ancient right if you are a primate. In decades of observations at the Yerkes colony, de Waal has noted that if the chimpanzees are given shareable food, like watermelons, they will race to get their hands on it. This is because whichever chimpanzee gets the watermelon first, even the lowliest cur, will be respected as the owner of that morsel by the most dominant chimpanzee. Its mates may beg and whine for some of it, but no one will take the food away.

But possession is only part of the story. The thing about ownership, says de Waal, is that in nature it goes hand in hand with sharing. Only 20 minutes after the food is put out, every chimpanzee in the colony will have some. "Owners share with their best buddies and family, who in turn share with their best buddies and family," he writes. Though there is some tussling, the result is more peaceful than not. The ownership/sharing principle is as true for killer whales and wolves as it is for chimpanzees, according to de Waal. And as ownership goes with sharing, so does compromise with justice and, yes, bickering with peacekeeping. Fairness matters to social animals. If two monkeys perform the same task but are given different-size rewards, the monkey that is cheated acts cheated. It will refuse to do its job in the face of such inequity.

Humans, of course, are social animals, too, and de Waal argues that feeling and acting with empathy for one another are as automatic as aggression—part of our "bipolar nature." It's a good phrase that handily refutes the biology-is-all-bad idea, but with its suggestion of flip sides, it may miss what is most interesting about de Waal's findings, which is that they challenge our penchant for tidy dichotomies. Some psychological traits are best understood as mosaiclike assemblages with seams that are invisible to us if all we do is look in the mirror. Take empathy. For humans, as comparative work with animals has helped to clarify, empathy has at least three layers.

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