Seeing The Softer Side Of Nature

In his new book, The Age of Empathy, Frans de Waal says nature has been wrongly depicted to justify a "survival of the fittest" attitude in humans. Drawing on examples from his primate observations, de Waal says it's time for humans to rethink how we treat each other.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

JOE PALCA, host:

From NPR News, this is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Joe Palca.

Up next, a look at the kinder, gentler side of the animal world. In his new book, primatologist Frans de Waal argues that nature has been wrongly depicted to justify some our less-than-nice human behaviors. Greed, selfishness, it's not our fault. No, no, no, no, it's just the survival of the fittest. We're doing what we were evolutionarily programmed to do.

Well, not so fast. Not so fast, says de Waal, because nature and the animal kingdom is full of examples of animals acting with a sense of fairness and compassion, and he says we should take a lesson from them.

Joining me now to talk about this is Frans de Waal himself. He's the C.H. Candler Professor of Psychology at Emory University in Atlanta. He's also the director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. His new book is "The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society." Dr. de Waal, thank you for joining us today.

Dr. FRANS de WAAL (C.H. Candler Professor of Psychology, Emory University; Director, Living Links Center, Yerkes National Primate Research Center): Yeah, I'm glad to be there.

PALCA: And if you'd like to join our conversation, the number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. And we can also take Tweets @scifri, or write to us on Second Life.

So Dr. de Waal, let's start at the beginning. What are you meaning when you talk about the term empathy?

Dr. DE WAAL: Well, it's interesting because empathy in psychology is often defined in a very complex way, like I put myself in your shoes, or I imagine how it would be in your situation. But I think actually in neuroscience and in biology, we are increasingly looking from a bottom-up perspective at the simpler forms like being emotionally in tune with somebody, being affected by the situation of somebody else.

For example, if you're talking with someone who's frowning, you start frowning; you talk with someone who's yawning, you start yawning. We actually do studies on yawn contagion now in animals. And so they are the more basic forms, and they are present in many animals.

PALCA: Can you talk about the technical term for a yawn? It was a great word. I don't remember it now.

Dr. DE WAAL: Yawn - oh, pandiculation.

PALCA: Pandiculation, yes, great word. Okay. But that's interesting because that sounds more - well, it's not exactly mimicry, but it doesn't seem to have this emotional component that empathy has.

Dr. DE WAAL: Yeah, all those things are related. So motor mimicry, like in yawn contagion, facial mimicry, emotional contagion, it's called. Like, if you're surrounded by happy people, you're probably going to be happy. And actually experiments have been done on that. And so, all these simple processes are involved and are part of empathy.

So even the very complex forms of empathy, where you take the perspective of somebody else, even in those, there is - the feeling or emotional component needs to be present because if it's not, we wouldn't call it empathy. So you take someone like, let's say Bernie Madoff, who was very good at taking the perspective of others, and so he had the cognitive part of empathy, but the feeling part was not there. We call that psychopaths, people like that.

PALCA: I see. So what is it, I mean, if we're going to talk in evolutionary terms or even biological terms, what's the value of empathy as you're defining it, this sense of mimicry or yawn contagion or something? Why would animals have evolved this?

Dr. DE WAAL: Well, I think it started with maternal care. And maternal care is obligatory for mammals, where a female needs to respond to the distress of her offspring, when they're cold or hungry or in danger, she needs to respond right away. If she doesn't respond right away, she's going to lose her offspring. So there's a very high selection pressure on females to be emotionally in touch with their offspring. And that's also probably why empathy is more developed in females than males. And in humans, that's already - on day one of life, there's already signs that it's more developed in females than males.

PALCA: But I'm curious now because are - does that mean that females are more likely to yawn when other people are yawning than males? I mean, if that's - if this is all part of empathy?

Dr. DE WAAL: Well, females are more in touch with facial expressions, for example, and that's already shown in very young children. So in babies, basically in the crib, the girl babies pay attention to facial expressions, and the boy babies pay attention to toys. Or for example crying, when you hear another baby cry, which is more in girl babies than in boy babies.

PALCA: So, okay, so if this book, this is "The Age of Empathy," why has this been - why do we need to make this a point worth noticing today?

Dr. DE WAAL: Oh, I think, first of all, because in science, maybe not in the general public but in science, empathy in animals has, for a long time, been denied and is actually, you know, there's philosophers and religious leaders who claim empathy is a uniquely human feature. So it's not surprising that it was denied in animals. So that's the first part.

I think there's a very long evolutionary history to empathy that needs to be emphasized. And, second, I think in the society today, there has been a sort of downplaying of the role of solidarity and empathy. And that's why I call it "The Age of Empathy" is that we have seen the economy collapse a year ago, and this was partly because greed and competition were emphasized instead of solidarity and empathy.

PALCA: But do you - I mean, there was a time in the beginning of the 20th century and I guess the end of the 18th century, where Darwinian theories of natural selection were used to justify some rather, you know, excessive behavior about, you know, people's need to get ahead and strive for the top of the heap in this sort of survival-of-the-fittest idea. But that was sort of - that fell out of favor very much, at least in the scientific community after the early 1920s or let's say. Do you think that's come back, this idea of social Darwinism, where, you know, you're allowed by certain selection pressures to behave however you want?

Dr. DE WAAL: Well, social Darwinism is still very much with us. The lack of solidarity where, for example, recently, this is just two weeks ago I believe that Senator Kyl said that he didn't need maternity care, and so he didn't think employers should be providing it. And so, this is a lack of empathy of a man with women, basically, and I think the social Darwinists still think that way. They think since nature works by means of elimination of the unfit, so to speak, because that's what Spencer's(ph) theory was about, then society should mimic that process. And anyone who cannot keep up with the economic advances of today is just lost.

And so, the health care debate is certainly about it because people will say: Why would I pay for the health care of others? And so this whole lack of solidarity is basically a social Darwinist idea.

PALCA: Okay, well, let's see what some of our listeners have to say about this topic. And let's go first to Peter(ph) in Berkeley, California. Peter, you're on the air with SCIENCE FRIDAY.

PETER (Caller): Hi, thank you.

PALCA: Sure.

PETER: I wanted to ask for some comment and connection, explicitly with foreign relations, foreign aid, even policies regarding fighting terror and other bad behavior where, perhaps according to this model, we should put more emphasis on filling people's basic needs rather than fighting fire with fire.

PALCA: Dr. de Waal?

Dr. DE WAAL: Yeah, foreign aid, I do believe empathy in humans and in animals is very in-group biased. And, actually, there's now some mouse studies…

PALCA: Now wait a minute. How do you mean in-group biased? What does that mean?

Dr. DE WAAL: It is biased to watch the in-group, to watch the members of your own group. And there's actually some mouse studies now where they have tested how mice respond to the pain of other mice, basically. And they found that they do so when the mice that they are seeing are mice that they know, but not mice that they don't know.

And so I think empathy in humans, that we have to test it many different ways, is always biased to watch individuals that you know or familiar with or who look familiar, who are socially close. And so, foreign aid is a bit of a stretch because now you're asking one group to help a completely different group that you don't even have contact with usually.

PALCA: I see. But if there is empathetic behavior in nature, certainly there's hostile or greedy or, you know…

Dr. DE WAAL: Sure.

PALCA: So, I mean, which biological imperative should we be paying attention to?

Dr. DE WAAL: I think both.

PALCA: Okay.

Dr. DE WAAL: I cannot imagine a society that has not some level of competition and greed and selfishness in there. That would - I don't think that would work. So I'm not advocating that you ignore all that competitive tendency that we definitely have as a human species, but we should also not ignore the other side of the equation, which is that we do have.

For example, empathy has changed the politics in this country. If you read, for example, the letters of Abraham Lincoln about his encounters with slaves in the South, he said he was bothered by it tremendously, and this partly motivated his desire to change that issue in this country.

And so empathy has always been a major factor. And, Obama, our president, he has emphasized, for example, with the Sotomayor choice for the Supreme Court, he has emphasized empathy, and empathy is always a political factor, I think.

PALCA: Okay. Let's take another call now and go to Dave(ph), and Dave in Rochester, New York. Dave, you're on the air with SCIENCE FRIDAY.

DAVE (Caller): Yeah, I'm a pediatrician, and I've worked with kids with both autism and Asperger's, which seems like they would be a good negative control for, say, individuals who really don't have the empathy feature, as you've described it. So I just wondered if there were any studies that have taken into account the genetic nature behind that.

PALCA: Dave, thanks for that. What about that, Dr. de Waal? Asperger's and autism?

Dr. DE WAAL: Yeah. I'm not an expert on autism, but, for example, the yawn contagion, that I mentioned earlier as one of those very basic forms of empathy, is absent in autistic children. It has been tested in them. They yawn as much as other children, but they don't have the yawn contagion. And so, you could describe autism maybe as a lack of - or a deficit of empathy. But I've also heard different theories where it's more an attentional, a motivational issue. And so, the empathy capacity is present. But since these children don't really pay attention much to facial expressions and body postures, they don't express it as much.

PALCA: Okay. Let's try hearing from Nate(ph) in Fargo, North Dakota. Nate, you're on the air.

NATE (Caller): Yeah, I got a question. I'm kind of interested in this subject and thought I'd call in because I was just in a class, we're talking about behavior ecology and stuff and they were talking about altruistic behavior amongst animal species. And what we talked about there is that animals will perform kind of altruistic acts. However, the underlying intention is to somehow pass on their genes either indirectly or in some way that they would have a reciprocal act later on down the road. Is that kind of contrary to what you're saying? Or…

PALCA: Hmm.

Dr. DE WAAL: No. Can I answer that?

PALCA: Sure, go ahead, yeah.

Dr. DE WAAL: No, I don't think that's contrary. We do think that altruistic behavior evolved in the context of reciprocal altruism, as it's called, or kin selection. So it's aimed at family members or other individuals who will repay the favor. But that doesn't mean that animals or humans, for that matter, when they show this acts, have that in mind.

So don't think that, let's say, a dog who rescues a human out of a burning building - and that kind of things happen sometimes - that they are thinking of getting a return favor, that they have that cognitive level that they can think of that. And so, actually, we need to separate why things evolve, which is one thing - and that same theory that you heard applies to human behavior, actually - and why things are being doing intentionally, what kind of motivation is behind it.

And then, there are perfectly - once a capacity exists, like empathy, it can be applied far beyond what it originally was intended for. So let's say, humans feel empathy for a stranded whale. Now, our empathy definitely did not evolve for that purpose. That was not the reason why we got it. But we can apply it to that particular situation.

PALCA: So, maybe we should define, how do you see the difference between empathy and altruism?

Dr. DE WAAL: Well, empathy is the capacity to be in tune emotionally with somebody else and to understand some of the situation of somebody else. And that capacity can be used for good and for bad. So, a torturer actually also needs to have some understanding of what is painful for somebody else and needs a level of empathy to do this. So empathy itself is actually a neutral cognitive capacity.

Then, when it turns into sympathy, then it becomes interesting. Sympathy has an action component. With sympathy, I want do something about your situation. And then altruism comes in as a possibility. So, these are actually - altruism is more of the acting, and empathy is more of the capacity that makes it possible to do the acting.

PALCA: We're talking with Frans de Waal about his new book, "The Age Of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society." I'm Joe Palca, and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Let's take another call now and go this time to Dan(ph) in Mississippi. Dan, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY. You're on the air.

DAN (Caller): Hey. Thank you very much. I'm actually en route to North Carolina from Texas by way of Mississippi. But either way, my question is regarding people who might be overly empathetic. Hey, is there any component of that that leads people to seek positions of authority because they feel that they have the answers? And then when they get into these positions of authority, does that backfire because you can't be empathetic to everyone? And there has to be some focus to their empathy because you can't please all the people all the time. So, I'm just curious whether there's an extreme in both directions.

PALCA: Okay. Interesting question. Too empathetic.

Dr. DE WAAL: Well, you know, I think that's actually a very good question because the main issue for me is not so much whether we have empathy and animals have empathy. Certainly for mammals, I think this is an established fact. But how it is regulated and when it is applied and when it is not applied. So for example, if you are a doctor in an emergency room or a nurse in the emergency room, you need to downplay your empathy. You need to sort of downgrade it because you cannot be empathic all the time.

You would go - professionally you would go (unintelligible) if you do that. And so, empathy needs to be regulated in the sense that we sometimes apply it and sometimes we don't. And we can turn it off. We can never turn it completely off, I think. Maybe some people can, but most people can't. But it needs to be regulated. Otherwise, we would drown in this sort of tendency. And that's completely correct. People need to be able to regulate it and people are not capable of doing that. They may get depressed, and actually it hurts - people say that the fact that depression is more developed in women than in men has to do with the fact that women are more emphatic and are affected by all the sorrow and misery that they see around themselves more than men are.

PALCA: Well, what would be an example of empathy in a chimpanzee or an ape?

Dr. DE WAAL: Well, let me give you a complex example, because I think there's lots of basic forms of being emotionally in tune with others which is very common in dogs and in chimps and so on. But let me give you a complex one. So, in a zoo in Sweden, there was a juvenile chimp who was choking because he had a rope twice around his neck and he was hanging in the rope and he was basically going to die until an adult male came up to him and lifted him up, so it took the pressure off the rope. And then with the other hand, his free hand, he unwrapped the rope and so set the juvenile free and so rescued him.

So, in order to do that, you have to have two things: One is you need to be emotionally affected by the situation of another, and that's what this sort of emotional empathy is. And you need to have the intelligence to know that you shouldn't be pulling at the juvenile because that's going to kill him, that you should do the smart thing to rescue him. And this kind of perspective taking that apes are capable of and elephants, I believe, and dolphins, leads to this more complex forms of empathy and sympathy that we also know of humans.

PALCA: So, in this case, I'm curious, though, what would you argue is the motivation, or is there a motivation, it's just an inherent need to help someone out? In other words, why did the ape go to the rescue of the juvenile?

Dr. DE WAAL: I think the ape was emotionally affected. And that's basically what happens. If you are distressed because somebody else is distressed, then rescuing the other individual also alleviates your own distress. And so there is a selfish component to sympathy in the sense that you're, in a way, also helping yourself if you help somebody else. And that's why certain studies - now they're doing studies on altruism in humans in the brain scanner where they find that if you do good, you feel good. And actually the reward centers in your brain lighten up because you get this positive feeling. And so altruistic behavior has this component of that you also feel good while you do it.

PALCA: We're talking with Frans de Waal about this new book, "The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society." We have to take a short break. We'll be taking your calls at 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Or you can send us a tweet and ask Frans de Waal what he - what you think, or tell him what you think about empathy and how it affects us today. So, we'll take this break. Please stay with us.

(Soundbite of music)

PALCA: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

PALCA: From NPR News, this is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Joe Palca. We're talking this hour about empathy. And my guest is Frans de Waal. He's a professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta. He's also the author of "The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society." We're taking your calls at 800-989-8255. And let's take one of your calls right now. Let's go to Jim(ph) in Eagle River, Arkansas. Jim, you're on the air with SCIENCE FRIDAY.

JIM (Caller): Hello, thanks. Alaska, actually.

PALCA: Oh, Alaska. Hmm.

JIM: That's okay. Competition and survival of the fittest seems to apply most to plants, but animals, I suspect, get their survival advantage by mutual aid -the other side of the coin, maybe, in evolutionary thought. And it used to be studied more - or mentioned more - the concept of mutual aid. But almost all animals exhibit mutual aid. They help the others of their species, and sometimes - and it has reproductive value…

PALCA: Yes.

JIM: …for the species as well as the individual.

PALCA: Okay. Jim, let me get Dr. de Waal's take on that. And sorry about the Alaska thing.

JIM: Oh, yeah. That's okay.

Dr. DE WAAL: Well, actually, there is some indications now that animals also support their own kin at least. It's very interesting, new type of research. But then animals - yes, there are many animals who survive by cooperating, and mutual aid is a term that comes from Kropotkin actually from a century ago. And - but people sometimes, they don't understand because they hear struggle for survival and survival of the fittest, then they think that all these animals are always competing with each other. That sort of the image we have of nature. But many animals like, let's say, dolphins and elephants and primates and wolves and - there's many animals who survive by sticking together and doing things together. And empathy is part of that equation. And that's why we shouldn't be surprised to find empathy in other species.

PALCA: Let's take another call now and go to Elsa(ph) in Gastonia, North Carolina. This is - you're on the air, Elsa. Are you there? Okay.

ELSA (Caller): Hello.

PALCA: Hello. Elsa, you're in the air. Welcome to the show.

ELSA: Oh, yes. I'm sorry about that.

PALCA: That's okay.

ELSA: I notice that I have a lot more compassion and empathy than most people do. I feel bad for the mother cow that loses her calf just as I feel bad for the mother human that loses a baby. I don't squash bugs. And I don't eat meat. A lot of people, especially the ones that are religious, question that. They're always bringing up the Bible, well, the Bible says that God created animals for us to do whatever we want with them. And I was just wondering if religion - if there had been any tests done that religion somehow affects how people - how compassionate they can be - if it limits them in any way. I believe in God, but I'm not just a religious person.

PALCA: Interesting. So, religion.

Dr. DE WAAL: Well, I think, you can read in the Bible almost anything you want. And people have done that. And if you look at the Bible actually, it talks a lot about compassion with the sick and the poor, which is exactly the opposite message, of course, of social Darwinism which basically says, let the sick and poor die. That's what nature would do and that's what we ought to do. And so I think you can derive from your religion one view or another view, whichever way you're leaning, and I'm not sure that I would not necessarily hold against the religion itself.

PALCA: Okay. Let's try Terry(ph) in Marlin, Texas. Terry, you're on the air.

TERRY (Caller): Thank you. Hi. How are you?

PALCA: Good.

TERRY: My question is this: Could the dominance of a race or a species greatly affect their mode of compassion for either the lower-echelon species or race, or the upper-echelon species or the race. Does that make sense?

PALCA: In other words, are you saying that the more dominant members of a particular society are going to have - be affected differently by empathy?

TERRY: Right. Will their level of empathy affect the lower echelon?

PALCA: I see. In other words, as a social role model kind of thing.

TERRY: Right, right.

PALCA: Okay. Dr. de Waal. What about that? Can leaders encourage empathy by their behavior or by their activities?

Dr. DE WAAL: I think that's definitely possible. It's that if they - if the dominant group in the society treats the subordinate group with lenience and empathy, so to speak, they probably get - they get some nice behavior in return, whereas if they don't, they may get a revolt on their hands at some point. And so, I think there's of course always going to be a tension because the dominant group also probably has more money and power, and they want to use that and exploit that to the fullest. So there's going to be tension and sort of conflicting interest that they have. But I do believe that dominant groups have, in the past, acted sometimes with empathy and they have only gotten benefits as a result.

PALCA: So is there any - you know, do you have - does your book have a societal message to deliver? I mean, you call this "The Age of Empathy," and the importance of empathy. Is this something that our society has, perhaps, lost touch with and would gain from re-familiarizing itself with?

Dr. DE WAAL: Yeah. The book has - on the one hand, I try to explore where empathy comes from, how it works, how mirror neurons and certain brain areas are involved and how animals have it. And so, one side is what is empathy and how does it work? The other side is that I think, as a biologist, I need to respond to people who want to say that society needs to be based on competitive principles because that's what nature is based on. And that's a very old opinion that has been around for a long time.

And since the economy has collapsed about a year ago under the weight of that kind of thinking, I feel, as a biologist, I need to explain that there's other ways of thinking. That nature, first of all, doesn't necessarily work the way people think it works. And that natural selection doesn't necessarily produce only competitive characteristics. And secondly, that I'm not sure that this is the right thing to mimic in society. And that society could have a level of empathy and solidarity and do very well with that.

PALCA: All right. We've run out of time. Thanks very much for joining us today, Dr. de Waal.

Dr. DE WAAL: You're welcome.

PALCA: Dr. de Waal is professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta. He's also the director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Center. His new book is "The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society."

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.