Survival of the Kindest

Reviews / by Eric Michael Johnson /

In his new book, The Age of Empathy, Frans de Waal outlines an alternative to “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” Can a vision of a more empathic world change the way we behave toward each other?

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In a fitting metaphor, the most recent experiment with social darwinism resulted in mass extinction. Former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling claimed he was inspired by Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene when he implemented a system known as “rank and yank” that sought to apply nature’s lessons to the energy industry. Skilling had all employees in the company ranked every six months. Then he offered lavish bonuses to the top 5 percent while the bottom 15 percent were relocated or fired.

This system of ruthless competition advanced just the type of personalities that one would expect: crazy people. As one Enron employee put it, “If I’m going to my boss’s office to talk about compensation, and if I step on some guy’s throat and that doubles it, then I’ll stomp on that guy’s throat.”

However, what was perhaps most disturbing is that according to Time magazine, 20 percent of US companies were following the same business model at the time of Enron’s collapse. Enron’s self-destruction was only the first in a nationwide trend. But what, if anything, does this say about nature?

In his latest book, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, primatologist Frans de Waal argues that social darwinists like Skilling have learned the wrong lessons about the natural world. The nasty, brutish existence dominated by “savage competition, ruthless exploitation, and deceit” that Dawkins describes is far from the norm for animals that live in social groups. They thrive because of the cooperation, conciliation, and, above all, the empathy that they display towards fellow members. The support and protection they receive from living in a group more than compensates for any selfish advantage they might have achieved on their own.

In other words, the “selfish gene” has discovered that the most successful approach is to behave unselfishly. De Waal thus argues that the age of empathy is far older than our own species and that we must keep this in mind as we try to apply these lessons ourselves.

The evolution of unselfish behavior has been one of the most controversial topics in the history of science. As early as the 1650s, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued that the natural world was a merciless struggle for survival. Only a strong, centralized government (in his eyes, the hereditary monarchy of King Charles I) could prevent the “dangerous disease” of democracy from plunging the nation into chaos. (Jeffrey Skilling would have been right at home in Hobbes’ worldview.)

In the years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, Thomas Henry Huxley, widely known as “Darwin’s bulldog,” endorsed Hobbes’ view of nature. Huxley claimed that natural selection was a “gladiator’s show” and a “Hobbesian war of each against all.” And until now, the only voice that promoted an alternative perspective was that of Russian naturalist Peter Kropotkin. His theory of mutual aid, ultimately rejected by evolutionary biologists of the time, has had to wait more than a hundred years to be reexamined.

If Dawkins is Huxley’s intellectual descendant, de Waal is certainly Kropotkin’s. Whereas Dawkins holds that biology will be of little help in building a just society, de Waal is less convinced that we are at war with our nature. Rather, he finds it odd that those instances of spontaneous altruism shown in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks or during the Katrina disaster could somehow be considered unnatural.

“Modern psychology and neuroscience fail to back these bleak views,” de Waal writes. “We’re preprogrammed to reach out. Empathy is an automated response over which we have limited control. We can suppress it, mentally block it, or fail to act on it, but except for a tiny percentage of humans—known as psychopaths—no one is emotionally immune to another’s situation.” Furthermore, many of these same characteristics can be found in the primates he’s studied for more than 20 years.

De Waal chronicles nearly a hundred cases of primates who have acted with the same kind of spontaneous generosity that was once thought exclusive to human beings. For example, the famous language-trained chimpanzee named Washoe once raced across two electric wires and braved a watery moat (which chimps are deathly afraid of) to save a drowning female.

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