Two books ago I listened to a non-fiction offering (most unusual!) called The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society by Frans de Waal. De Waal is a respected primatologist. He came out throwing punches: the opening reads “Greed is out. Empathy is in.” He couches this proclamation in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis in which he proposes we learned not to be greedy (oh that we had…) and in looking back at the kindness and care that poured forth from individuals if not from the government, after Hurricane Katrina. With that beginning I thought that at the end he might have set forth a template for keeping greed out and empathy in, but in my view he did not. I now recognize that as my imposition and not his goal. Looking back at the subtitle, and now having listened to the entire offering, de Waal instead sought to show that empathy is not a wholly human characteristic, but one that is intrinsically a part of us.
I am not particularly skilled in book review but I would share that the author points to empathy as coming into being with mammals, with mothering, parental nurturing that is a part of the nature of mammals. I think of three stories he told coming out of studies among fellow scientists.
The first was the story of a pregnant gorilla. He observed that as a rule the gorillas did not give birth in front of their human observers but on this one occasion someone was able to witness what happened. Seemingly out of nowhere a number of gorillas gathered together in the area of the pregnant one. She stood with her legs spread and reached one of her arms under her. As she did so another older female stood next to her and assumed the same pose – although she was not pregnant. She was it seems, companioning with her experience. Once the baby emerged all of those gathered ‘round hugged and clapped one another on their backs. A familiar experience when one is born into our midst isn’t it…
Another was about an experiment with dolphins. An explosion was rigged below the surface – not to injure but to make a loud noise. One dolphin took in the brunt of the explosion. I learned by listening to this book that dolphins need to breathe out of water. In this instance other dolphins surrounded this one dolphin, holding its head up out of the water so it could breathe until it recovered. The ones who were showing care, were not able to breathe in the time they rendered care to the other.
The third story was about an elephant who had been shot through the lungs. Elephants it seems, need to be on their feet. So in this case the elephants who had been with this one circled and supported the wounded elephant for as long as they could. Eventually the elephant succumbed and dropped to the earth. One of the other elephants went off, gathered some grass, and attempted to put the grass in the elephant’s mouth.
De Waal tells us that empathy kicks in when we identify with another. Based on his research he states that empathy is a part of our evolution. One review says “Throughout the book, de Waal illustrates how behaving more like our wild mammalian cousins may just save humanity.” O, The Oprah Magazine had this to say: "The lessons of the economic meltdown, Hurricane Katrina, and other disasters may not be what you think: Biologically, humans are not selfish animals. For that matter, neither are animals, writes the engaging Frans de Waal, a psychology professor with proof positive that, like other creatures who hang out in herds, we've evolved to be empathetic. We don't just hear a scream, it chills us to the bone; when we see a smile, we answer with one of our own. THE AGE OF EMPATHY offers advice to cutthroat so-called realists: Listen to your inner ape."
Perhaps my favorite quote from the book is this: “If I were God I’d work on the reach of human empathy.” Maybe we can be God’s helpmates – and “ape” the apes :-)