Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Frans DeWaal, The Age of Empathy (2009)

Good book. Poorly chosen title. Whether DeWaal chose the title The Age of Empathy or the publisher thrust it upon him, it was clearly inspired by the euphoria following the November 2008 election of Barack Obama as President of the United States as though the election launched a new era of human behavior. He shares a similar hope with Jose Saramago's hope for a kinder, social society as expressed in The Notebook (September 28, 2010 post). Now, two years later, on the heels of the midterm elections in the United States, empathy is hardly a name that I would assign to these times.

Nor does the title align well with one of De Waal's essential points about human duality, which is illustrated in the following passage:

"Humans are bipolar apes. We have something of the gentle, sexy bonobo, which we may like to emulate, but not too much; otherwise the world might turn into one giant hippie fest of flower power and free love. Happy we might be, but productive perhaps not. And our species also has something of the brutal, domineering chimpanzee, a side we may wish to suppress, but not completely, because how else would we conquer new frontiers and defend our borders? One could argue that there would be no problem if all of humanity turned peaceful at the same time, but no population is stable unless it's immune to invasions by mutants."

Even De Waal admits that empathy --- the ability to identify with and feel a connectedness to another --- is as much a part of us (and other species) as selfishness, violence, and egocentrism. "I rate humans among the most aggressive primates," he writes, "but also believe that we're masters at connecting and that social ties constrain competition. In other words, we are by no means obligatorily aggressive. It's all a matter of balance: Pure, unconditional trust and cooperation are naive and detrimental, whereas unconditional greed can only lead to the sort of dog-eat-dog that Skilling advocated at Enron until it collapsed under its own weight." So contrary to the opening line of the book, "Greed is out, empathy is in," there will never be an "age" dominated by empathy or any other single other characteristic of our personality.

Our capacity for cooperation, altruism, and other social instincts is certainly biological, and it is a product of evolution. We have much to learn about what makes us human from learning about the behavior of other species from which humans evolved as we do from observing our own behavior. This is De Waal's primary thesis. And this thesis is no stranger to this blog and previous posts, including De Waal's own The Ape and the Sushi Master (June 17, 2010 post), Oren Harman's The Price of Altruism (October 13, 2010 post), Dacher Keltner's Born to Be Good (July 16, 2010 post), Holldobler and Wilson's The Superorganism (November 4, 2009 post), Michael Gazzaniga's Human (September 27, 2009), Marco Iacobonni's Mirroring People (September 18, 2009 post), and Christine Kennealy's The First Word (August 31, 2009 post).

De Waal takes aim at three myths: (1) the myth that our ancestors --- 4 foot bipedal apes --- ruled the savanna in Africa; (2) that human society is a voluntary creation of autonomous men; and (3) that our species has been waging war for as long as it has been around. Our ancestors were likely both prey and predator and survival favored genes that encouraged collaboration and companionship. The idea that humans were autonomous falsely presumes they had no need for anybody else and could voluntarily choose to live apart, uncommitted to anyone else or any place. A warlike initial state of nature that philosophers like Rousseau imagined that was overcome by social compacts is actually the reverse of human evolution: war on a grand scale, like we have known for centuries, came only after social hierarchies were formed and wealth was created. The early human species was probably defined more by social commitments and small scale collaboration that promoted primitive economic exchange and division of labor.

At the biological core of our humanness is the limbic system, which, from an evolutionary perspective, is one of the oldest parts of our neural network in the human brain. It is a part of the brains of other species as well. Antonio Damassio identifies the limbic system as a critical regulator of feelings and emotions in The Feeling of What Happens, and it is central to understanding human consciousness. De Waal says the limbic system allows emotions such as affection and pleasure, and paved the way for family life, friendships, and other caring relationships. Other parts of our neural network allow us to store memories of these feelings and emotions and allow us to recall the context in which we previously experienced them and then to "understand" them. A key line here is De Waal's statement, "Bodily connections come first --- understanding follows." Mirror neurons, as described in Iacobonni's Mirroring People (September 18, 2009 post), are active in these other parts of the neural network known as the brain that allow us to "read" the minds of others, enabling us to connect with others, and facilitate the the experience we call empathy. "De Waal calls this emotional contagion: seeing another's emotions arouses our own emotions, and then we build "a more advanced understanding of another's situation." Later, he adds, "Empathy engages brain areas that are more than a hundred million years old. The capacity arose long ago with motor mimicry and emotional contagion, after which evolution added layer after layer, until our ancestors not only felt what others felt, but understood what others might want or need."

True to his dualism, just as De Waal recognizes that emotional contagion probably starts immediately with the mother-child relationship and that early communication fosters a bond, a second phase begins just months later in the course of child development when the child begins to develop a sense of self. And empathy, De Waal believes, "requires both mental mirroring and mental separation." The former occurs when we see another person in a particular emotional state. The latter occurs when we parse our own emotional state from the other, and this allows us to "pinpoint the actual source of our own feelings." De Waal attributes our dualism to the existence of VEN cells in the brain --- Von Economo neurons --- that differ from other neurons and are unique to humans and their recent ancestors. Physically, VEN cells are long and spindle-like and reach deeper into the brain. Research shows that when parts of the human brain that contain these cells are damaged, behavior is marked by a loss of perspective-taking, empathy, embarrassment, and future orientation. Besides humans and certain apes, these cells are also found in dolphins, whales, and elephants, where behavioral research shows they have the capacity for empathy that is not found in other species.

De Waal frets that the reluctance of some segments of human society to talk about animal emotions has "less to do with science than religion." Eastern religions, which tend to embrace the connectedness between humans and other species, don't show this reluctance, but the Judaeo-Christian-Muslim religions tend to place humans on a pedestal as the only intelligent life on earth and show greater reluctance to connect themselves to other species as opposed to abstract spirits that purportedly have equal or greater intelligence. De Waal believes this is because of their origin in an existence where humans were desert nomads --- where other animal life was sparse compared to other geographic regions on earth.

From our capacity for empathy evolves reciprocal behavior and ultimately altruistic social rules. But given the dualism that reflects both our empathetic self and our self-centered self, we also have competitive behavior and ultimately social rules to regulate that competition. This leads De Waal to identify two types of fairness principles that are at the core of these social rules: fairness that seeks a level playing field (equality) and fairness that links rewards to effort, and both are "essential," De Waal says.

My observation is that the pendulum swings between the two types of fairness --- one which is grounded in empathy and the other which is grounded in the sense of self. One type of fairness does not displace the other entirely. So if this was the Age of Empathy, the Age of Greed and Discord is merely sublimated for a period of time. But De Waal appears to be the optimist in contrast to Jose Saramago, the pessimist, on this point, whom I quoted in The Notebook (September 28, 2010 post), concluding, "It is most likely, however, that there is no remedy for any of the above and that civilizations will continue to collide, one against the other."

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