Oh, here’s a great book you’ve got to read: The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society. Primatologist Frans de Waal works with our cousins, the great apes, and has been able to identify empathy and emotional awareness in very helpful ways.
Dr. de Waal sees empathy as an inheritance from our ancestors (primate and otherwise), and he sees empathy as the organizing center of a functioning social world. Yes!
Dr. de Waal is challenging the idea that many have mistakenly attributed to Charles Darwin, which is the fantasy of the survival of the fittest. A better explanatory term would be the survival of the fitting: or survival of those organisms that best fit into their environments and biomes. The idea that only the “fittest” survive is so silly. If that were so, then every animal would have huge pointy teeth, sharp claws, and be a capitalist.
As we’re seeing so clearly in America these days, greed, selfishness, and fantasies about the magic of free markets aren’t survival strategies; they’re actually causing all of us a great deal of despair; they’re terrible survival strategies; they’re antisocial and they backfire.
The truth is that the animals and organisms that are “fitting” survive. The history of evolution and nature is not a Hollywood action movie where everything blows up and the slightly insane, muscle-bound bully wins; instead, it’s a story that requires more care and subtlety to understand.
In the real story of natural evolution, we have endless variations in body forms, behaviors, complexity, and purpose; in the real story, the organisms that survive are not the meanest or the greediest; they’re the ones that are best suited — that are best fitted — to where they are and what they need to do. For a social species like ours, it is fitting that we should have and develop the empathic skills we need to understand and help each other.
THE NESTED ASPECTS OF EMPATHY
Dr. de Waal organizes empathy as three separate, nested functions:
Perspective-taking, or the ability to understand things from another’s viewpoint. Dr. de Waal links perspective-taking to our capacity to perform “targeted helping,” or appropriate interventions into other people’s lives. I like to think of targeted helping in terms of gift-giving. If you’re really good at figuring out the perfect gift for others, you’ve got a good handle on perspective-taking.
Concern for others, or the ability to understand the emotional and physical pain others might be feeling. Dr. de Waal links concern for others to our capacity to skillfully offer consolation. This skill seems to be a difficult one to put into action for many of us. It can be hard to offer consolation in ways that work for the other person. I wonder: do we we have difficulty offering consolation because we don’t want to take the perspective of the person in pain?
State-matching, or the ability to understand and share the emotional states of others. Dr. de Waal links state-matching to our empathic capacity for emotional contagion. I don’t know if I love the idea of “contagion,” but it is descriptive, isn’t it? Think of contagious laughter, or contagious crying; our brains help us feel what others feel because it helps us create and nurture community.
What a wonderful set of organizing categories!
This book offers great hope for humanity, if we can just create room for empathy, social justice, and fellow-feeling instead of wasting our time on greed and brutality. That’s certainly my focus; wanna join me?
The Age of Empathy should be at your library, and it’s definitely worth reading. I loved it so much that I’m buying it now! In hardcover! That’s real love.