Book Review: The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society

As I read more and more on Biomimicry, Biomimetic Concepts, and continue to use many of the same Biomimicry go-to resources, I wanted to try and branch out from many of the recurring ideas and examples that I’ve heard too many times to count now (no matter how neat and interesting!). For example, most of us reading this blog have heard of the Shinkansen Train in Japan, which was notably inspired by the beak of a Kingfisher bird; or, the more efficient wind turbine blade inspired by the tubercles of a Humpback Whale.

Hence, I set off to find something new. Although incredibly cool, I didn’t want to read about new cockroach inspired robots or Eastgate and Termite Mounds. What I did want to find was something more esoteric to Biomimicry and I happened upon the book The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society by Frans de Waal. I was immediately hooked off the title!   With that said, I was overall disappointed in the book, but only because I was looking at it particularly through my Biomimetic scope and I was thinking nature lessons for a kinder society would extend beyond just Chimpanzees and Bonobos. Ok, so I’ll break this down into pros and cons of the book.

Pros: The book really is a great read (when I’m able to take off my Biomimicry critique glasses). If you like personal anecdotes, then you won’t be disappointed with the perhaps hundreds that are scattered throughout the pages of this book. I learned a lot about the Hominidae family (the Great Apes) and their group behaviour, as well as individual interactions and how they solve problems within their group and amongst themselves.  For instance, chimpanzees often share food with others and those that do, often have a stronger bond, much like a human family. There were also many wonderful examples of cross-species empathic behaviour, such as a dog in Argentina named “La China” whom, with the motherly instinct in full effect after just having her own brood, heard the cries of a human newborn baby in the dumpster, picked up the baby boy, and started nursing it alongside her own puppies.

Cons: “Nature” in this book is limited to the myopic view of the Great Apes, with just a few other Elephant, dog and Dolphin examples. I also found the book to be one anecdote after the other to drive home the notion that animals are “unfeeling” or have no empathy. I understood the point de Waal was making after the first chapter of chimpanzee behavioural anecdotes.

De Waal argues that despite the many disasters we’ve seen, such as Hurricane Katrina and 9/11, humans are – at their evolutionary core – unselfish. We’ve evolved like many other herd animals to be bred with empathy. There are certainly a few lessons that humans can learn and takeaway from this book, such as, when chimpanzees argue, they immediately embrace and kiss to keep social order. However, there are a few I definitely wouldn’t recommend to have translated over into the human world, such as when Bonobos argue or they encounter high-stress situations, they engage in sex as a way to diffuse tension and settle arguments (regardless of gender). I don’t think humanity as a whole would be able to tolerate that.

The overarching thesis of this book: Animals, especially herding animals, have a high degree of empathy because through evolution, we’re bred to have emotions and social bonding experiences. De Waal states that we’ve evolved to have empathy via emotional contagion (“catching” emotions from those with whom you associate closely), but doesn’t go much further beyond the surface of his hypothesis; It’s more of what we have in common with the other Great Apes than truly what we can learn from them.  Unless you want to read the hundreds of anecdotes, then you have the gist of this book.

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