Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society


Since the name of this blog was inspired by one of Frans de Waals books, I feel a certain responsibility to note that he has a new one out... haven't read it yet, but Slate has what appears to be pretty good brief of de Waal's latest:
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.

I would like to think that there aren't many people who need to be informed of the innumerable fallacies and failings of Social Darwinism and "greed is good" philosophies... but I suppose it can't hurt to point out that, beyond the immorality, the underlying analogy isn't even accurate.