The Age of Empathy
The Bonobo and the Atheist
Frans de Waal
Paperback editions 2009 and 2014
Over the past few decades, observations and experiments with social animals, including humans, have led to a conceptual revolution in the understanding of how human morality evolved and of humanity’s place in the animal kingdom. This information has been collected and condensed by primatologist Frans de Waal in two ground-breaking books.
These conclusions were validated and extended by observations of experiments with primates and other mammals living both in the wild and in “artificial” environments such as zoos and animal research centers. Among the spectrum of empathic behavior these experiments demonstrated were food sharing, cooperation in task completion, a sense of fairness, companionship, play for its own sake, post-conflict consolation of distressed individuals by a third party and much more along the lines requiring one individual to adopt the perspective of another. For example, just as with humans, injustice is strongly resented across the entire spectrum of social animals. In a typical experiment, when two monkeys are able to perceive that they are being rewarded unequally for performing the same task, the one receiving the lesser reward often refuses to complete the task.
Neurophysiological research has shown that the capacity for empathic response in humans and other social animals is enabled by brain structures known as mirror neurons (nerve cells). When encountering other group members, primates such as humans, chimpanzees and monkeys tend to imitate behavior through the activation of mirror neurons and as a result gain a sense of the other individual’s emotional state or as de Waal puts it, “lets one organism get under the skin of another.”
Cooperation and Competition
In The Bonobo and the Atheist, de Waal introduces a second chimpanzee species, the female-led bonobo. Unlike the more aggressive chimpanzee, bonobo society is far less competitive and tension is dissipated by near-constant sexual activity as opposed to aggression. By contrasting the very different social structures of these two primate species, de Waal demonstrates the wide range of behaviors available to primates in achieving a satisfactory balance between competition and cooperation. Humans possess the same evolutionarily derived emotional underpinnings as other primates and historically, human societies have shown considerable variation in balancing cooperation and competition.
Morality and Empathy
De Waal sees morality as a product of evolution and takes issue with the view that it emerged from religious teachings. Instead, religious systems are seen as codifying evolved moral behavior within their respective doctrines and narratives. He speculates that early humans living in small bands practiced one-on-one morality similar to that of other primate species. Only when the scale of society began to grow and rules of reciprocity based on individual association were no longer adequate does he believe that religion incorporated pre-existing moral principles within its teachings. The adoption of uniform religious beliefs, ritual practice and uniform codes of conduct across a society helps create bonds of trust between individuals who might otherwise be unknown to each other.
Science and Religion
Religion, by contrast, is static. It provides deep empathic connections between individuals comprising a community and, according to de Waal, is unlikely to ever go away since it is part of our “social skin.” It can change as a result of a changing society, but rarely in response to (scientific) evidence where that evidence is in conflict with deeply held beliefs. The result, in some quarters, is a never-ending conflict between religious dogma and scientific results and in others, a wholesale disparagement of religion as being ignorant of verifiable truth. Despite their very different functions, de Waal feels that much of the antipathy between science and religion is created by extremists in both camps who are interested primarily in protecting their vested doctrinal positions. Moreover, the author believes that along with religion and the other creative professions, the scientific pursuit of knowledge, is motivated by a similar inspiration to find meaning and provide a sense of purpose.
For more information on de Waal’s findings, visit Human Traits in Our Nearest Relatives, #7 Morality.
Frans de Waal
“I am not sure that religion is at the root of morality because I personally think that morality existed before we had religions … all human societies have a form of religion so what does religion contribute to human society – that’s the question.”
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
A series of experiments testing altruism in both very young children and chimpanzees.
Yale University researchers say babies are born with knowledge of right and wrong. A test with puppets shows babies preferring the “good” character most of the time.