Thursday, May 2, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society by Frans de Waal

The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society
I figured I haven’t read a ‘smart’ book lately; One where it actually takes brain power and makes you think about what you are reading. And it was great.
Yes, I did grab this book based on the chimps hand on the cover. But I am also a fan of Fran de Waal. As a fellow primatologist  (hahahahahahaha okay, maybe a wannabe went to school to be one and now I’m stuck being a fricken secretary- as the laughter turns to tears) I respect the way he views primates, evolution, the relationships between Homo sapiens and other primates.  He does it in a very non-anthromorphic way.  I also like how he sprinkles some humor into the book so it reads very non-textbook like.

De Waal is adamant that we aren’t the selfish, individualistic, greedy person that the world (albeit the American world) personifies us to be.  The Age of Empathy comes from the aftermath of such tragedies such as Hurricane Katrina, or the tsunami in Thailand.  Making sure friends and family is okay is more important than the material goods. How many of us helped in some way to a bunch of people we never even met. It shows that compassion stems from everyone, even if it’s not an economic gain.  

De Waal shows us in this book that social behavior such as bonding, conflict resolution, herd mentality and consolation are present in animals (and human) naturally. We are prewired towards empathy.   He shows a great deal of empirical evidence to show that animals do in fact ‘care’ for on another, sharing resources. Of course he mainly focuses on primates, especially the great apes. They know that it is better to help one another out in order to survive.  Empathy requires emotional involvement in a situation or towards an individual,.  There is a need for balance between social and selfish motives,  nd you can see that in basic survival instincts. Sure you can let the snake bite your friend, but where would it get you?

Yes, we can be greedy at times. There are always the ones who have to be in charge, but in reality we usually need one or two’ policing’ members of every community to help keep things under control, keep things  calm. This can be seen that in more or less every species out there, there is some form of a hierarchy.  

Points of the book I really enjoyed:

-          The elephants and the mirror.  It just made me happy and wanted to learn more about elephants.

-          The ‘baby farm’ phenomena. – while it was such a horrible idea, it really grounded the fact that we NEED bonding. From human babies to chimp babies. We crave that bonding, and require it in order to become a functioning adult.

-          We needed to be around people. Back in the day when we were strolling the savannahs with saber tooth tigers, we needed support of others. If you went at it alone, you’d probably become a nice meal.  By supporting others, bonding, having a way of resolving conflict we became a numerous species.

-          The war hungry myth also was an interesting point to me. We didn’t evolve loving war. De Waal makes a good point; there weren’t enough people to actively engage in war all the time. War started when humans became more abundant.  And it usually stemmed from water or women.

 It was refreshing to read a scientific book that didn’t read like one. I was impressed with de Waals’ work on this book and I look forward to reading some of his other works.


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