The Age of Empathy

The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder SocietyThe Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society by Frans de Waal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

even among those who “believe in” evolution, there’s a lot of argument around animal emotion–do animals have emotions? if they do, do they have the same ones we do? if so, can we (lacking a language to converse with critters) interpret them? and just how much do we have in common with our animal brethren and sistren?

i think de Waal would be the first to say this book is incomplete in the sense that none of those questions have been comprehensively answered. but it’s a pretty good first stab at arriving at answers in a scientific, methodical way.

this book is concerned mainly with empathy and similar emotions: care, friendship, sympathy, generosity, a sense of fairness, and how such emotions play out in animals. de Waal is a primatologist first, so he spends a lot of time on chimps, our closest animal relatives. chimps, it turns out, have an amazingly complex social structure, and only a small part of it runs toward nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw.

de Waal uses his observations on chimps (and many other critters) to cast some light on human society as well, and on arguments about what exactly constitutes our genetic heritage. he is quite thoroughly amusing commenting on, for example, politicians who will say that our cutthroat competitiveness is merely an artifact of our DNA, while simultaneously denying evolution and the fact that we also inherit vast tracts of empathy and other socially positive traits. de Waal is best when commenting on economics as practiced and economics as theory.

if you’re looking for a balanced view on whether animals have emotions, this is not the book for you, because de Waal never seriously examines the “no” side of that coin. but if you’re looking for one to both educate you on what emotions scientists and animal observers have mapped, how scientists come to the conclusions they do, and what it all might mean for both animals and humans, you couldn’t come to a better book.