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The Age Of Empathy by Frans De Waal

1/10/2011. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy The Age Of Empathy in the USA - or Buy The Age Of Empathy in the UK

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pub: Souvenir Press Ltd. 291 page indexed small enlarged paperback. Price: GBP12.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-28564-038-2.

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Frans De Waal was born in Holland but now lives in the USA. As such, this reflects on his examination of empathy from within these two domains and the primates he’s worked with in his studies. He criticises how countries care for their poor which considering how the States is hardly in the top ten in this seems at odds with his views on empathy. All countries are likely to have some freeloaders but amongst the poor, these are outweighed by those who need help. It’s a shame really he didn’t examine the UK. I mean, for example, of all the countries that run marathons for pros and amateurs alike, it’s only the UK that actually has fund-runners doing so for charity. An odd comparison is that unlike the Americans, we don’t make charitable donations for a tax reduction which tends to be counter-empathy for doing something for no return.

De Waal’s objective is an examination of contemporary empathy and how much man will freely help his fellow man and how much this is reflected by other species, especially amongst the primates. This tends to be at odds with how Man can be particularly nasty and vindictive but it seems all animals balance on this knife edge of killer and helpful and the rulebook has a fine edge across the animal kingdom.

The subject of how the herd instinct kicks in when we copy someone who yawns or laughs is covered quite extensively but I was surprised with the latter why cultural differences wasn’t covered. I mean, how does one react to, say, how an oriental face can remain inscrutable when other humans are so expressive. I would have thought tribal reaction was just as important. Saying that, I suspect those of you who read this book will get the urge to see how contagious passing a yawn or a laugh can be.

I see the comparisons to chimpanzees that De Waal makes to humans as a means to divorce one’s self from his own species for observation and there is a mutual sharing mindset. However, this is in its broadest sense. A chimpanzee might understand a pratt fall but not an oral joke but would do its own laugh if humans were laughing at something. I would have thought that this would be seen as herd instinct joining in rather than be left out. I’ve noticed when I don’t laugh at something, it causes more confusion and even the odd case of ridicule in not getting the joke.

De Waal’s assessments, especially in the last chapter are actually very thought-provoking. I do agree with him that there is a greater acceptance of empathy these days but there is a more disturbing thought he gives that there are more psychopathic personalities surfacing. Not that that they are out killing people but their abundance in business and its practice and their lack of compassion has a lot to do with the current financial problems the world current has. I do think this dividing line needs to be examined more, especially in De Waal’s animal speciality in what we can learn from other animals. If anything, it’s the dividing line between sheep and wolves. If you’re empathic, then you’re going to be regarded amongst the sheep. The wolves are the more psychopathic and they, like any pack, are less inclined to fight amongst themselves.

There’s a lot of psychological understanding that you can learn from this book, not to mention how people manipulate your responses for their own means, including the so-called benign Hare Kushnas who know that accepting one of the flowers will ensure you respond with money in return. Oddly, De Waal also points out that we need a balance between our good and bad sides for all kinds of purposes and why we have cut-off points between them so we don’t always go to extremes. That probably explains the difference between vegans not wishing to hurt or eat animals but are capable of desiring vicious acts against their own species. Knowing this, there is a greater appreciation of how some animals will mother animals of different species which they would have otherwise eaten. I loved his examples of members of some chimpanzee groups will rub in how they were aggrieved by other members of the group to get more of their own way as a passive revenge. For humans, the information that man is not as violent as we think he is, especially in war-time, is even more revealing and I wish he’d explored this more.

As a starter book on how animals react and how this is paralleled in mankind is definitely going to make you think. Any limitations De Waal shows I think comes from his own limited travels. However, as he occasionally points out, his speciality is more the primates than his own species. If you have a desire to help others regardless of whether it will benefit you then you are truly empathic. If you’re only doing it to help yourself, then you really need to look at yourself and your own behaviour. Read this book and see which you are.

GF Willmetts

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This book has 95 votes in the sci-fi charts

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