The Age of Empathy

Cover of The Age of EmpathyOh, 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. Concern for others and unselfishness is so much more important than trying to get ahead at any cost, make money or even worrying about silly first world problems like where to go on vacation or how to get whiter teeth. 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.


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 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.

20 Responses

  1. sarah elise
    | Reply

    Awesome! Empathy is the first of the virtues we are trying to develop in our children. I love your work!!

  2. Sean the Blogonaut
    | Reply

    The original meaning of Survival of the fittest – first coined by Herbert Spencer in relation to Darwin’s theory of natural selection was that of the best “fitted” organism to the immediate environment, this could mean big and strong, small and fast, tool using etc.

    I think it’s probably a failing of both science communication/education and the general ignorance of the populace that assumes the meaning of words across time and culture.

  3. Sean the Blogonaut
    | Reply

    (clipped myself off early there)
    … that results in this misunderstanding.

    Yet another book I will have to add to my TBR list.

  4. Michael
    | Reply

    Another book of interest is The Empathic Civilization-by-Jeremy Rifkin.Pg.97 he quotes Frans and goes on to show the need for Empathy in a growing Global Consciousness in A World in Crisis!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thanks Sean and Michael!

      Michael, I ordered the book toot suite, thanks.

      And Sean, every time I see the ladder model used to explain evolution, or that tired lineup showing chimps or early man as lesser beings with modern man as the apex of evolution, I go aaarrrggghh!

      Have you read Neil Shubin’s book Your Inner Fish? It’s a marvelous tour through the quirky, slapped-together, fishy, mammally, lizardy kluge of the human body, and it’s fun!

  5. Sean the Blogonaut
    | Reply


    Not yet I haven’t= I have several books on evolution that I have trouble justifying to the minister of internal affairs as it is :)

  6. Amanda
    | Reply

    Hi Karla,
    Thanks for your great site. I just started reading your book – the Language of Emotions and I feel like I have found a kindred spirit in you! I guess I would consider myself an “empath” too, although the term is new to me.

    I experienced abuse as a child as well and have lived a very overstimulating life being super tuned into others’ feelings. To the point of being confused at who I am… feeling others feelings as my own a lot of times and not even realizing they are someone else’s.

    Also I could really identify with the part where you mentioned seeing the core of the issue beyond others perceptions and seeming to stir up everyone’s stuff wherever you went.

    I equate it to being like most people are speaking in a made up baby talk language…. which confuses me… and it seems ridiculous and silly to speak in that way myself. But when I speak the truth… or ask if my perceptions of the real point are correct everyone throws a fit.

    You mention in the book you’ve learned how to manage your empath abilities and learned to give animals and people their privacy.

    Can you speak on this?

    I’d really appreciate it.
    I need to learn how to manage this!
    It’s like I need to go to the xmen school for mutants to learn how to harness this “superpower” so I don’t keep accidentally charring myself and others.

    Thanks so much.

    Amanda Joy

  7. Amanda
    | Reply

    Thanks for the info!!!

  8. Sharon Summerford
    | Reply


  9. Kay
    | Reply

    Cool! Thanks for the recommendation, Karla.

  10. Karly
    | Reply

    Hi Karla,

    Thank you for normalizing my experience as an empath. For much of my life, I’ve felt crazy because I realized I see – more accurately, feel! – the world much differently than others. I’ve often felt frustrated, scapegoated, shamed, and invalidated, because as an empath, I pick up on what’s really being felt and what’s there. But if others aren’t aware of their feelings, or don’t see them, they blame me or accuse me of being too sensitive. (Yep, I am also a highly sensitive person, but I don’t see it as a character flaw.) It’s like living on 2 different planets.

    You’ve helped me appreciate that no, I’m not crazy! You’ve also given me a language for understanding. In one of your posts, you talked about how as children, we’re subtly communicated all these rules about how we’re supposed to behave and be. As a child, I picked up on all those hidden rules, perceptions, all the things that weren’t said but felt. I internalized all those rules and as an adult, ended up with a large pile of rules that I then I had to weed through – are these my thoughts/expectations, or someone else’s? These giant “shoulds” have caused me such suffering, and I’ve come to see that much of my healing journey is shedding or releasing these beliefs. You were the first person to put this into words for me, and I feel very grateful – I feel understood and validated, and with these words of explanation, I have something tangible to wrap my brain around.

    One of my teachers, Dr. Gordon Neufeld, a developmental psychologist, calls emotions “the engine of maturation.” I think you, along with him and a few others, are at the forefront of helping our society appreciate that emotions are not a nuisance variable (another one of Dr. Neufeld’s phrases), but how we become fully alive and connected to each other.

    I feel so angry when I see a chart in New Age circles of an emotions ladder, and about how we need to rise up out of the lower emotions to the higher emotions. Something in my heart recoils at this! In my experience, I felt ashamed by this chart, because I felt a lot of the lower emotions, and thought this meant there was something wrong with me, or that I was a “lesser” or “unspiritual” person…

    So I did all this inner work to focus on only feeling positive things, to cut out my negative emotions, to rise up the ladder, which thankfully, but painfully, backfired. I then tried a radically different tactic. I stopped running from my emotions and started feeling all of them – not easy, but much more healing than running from them, suppressing them, shaming them, or trying to “transmute” them.

    In feeling all my feelings – including the lower ones – I realized that I wasnt’ crazy or a terrible person, but one who was feeling fully alive. I appreciate finding others who walk this path, because it has felt very lonely at times. (I’ve found that if other people aren’t comfortable with all of their emotions, they usually aren’t comfortable with your feeling all of yours!)

    So, thank you for your work and for normalizing my experiences. Thank you for being another voice out there saying, “Emotions are not the enemy! They serve a purpose.” And crucially, for me, thank you for giving me tools to work with my emotions. (I’ve got your audio series coming.)

    I’m diving deep into your work.

    In gratitude and appreciation, Karly

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Karly!

      Oh, the New Age and all its inexplicable feeling rules. Wow, what a mess that was! But that community and those ideologies were great living laboratories for me to see exactly what happens when people try to repress, avoid, and transmute emotions. It so doesn’t work that it’s amazing people can’t see it. Silly rabbits!

      Some people who are working with emotions in thoughtful and empathic ways are neuroscientist Antonio Damasio (here’s a post about his work), child psychologist Mary Lamia (here’s a post about her), our pal Frans De Waal. The emotions are slowly coming out of the shadows, yay!

      I’m glad you’re here. We empaths have to stick together! Here’s an updated definition of empathy, which comes from a post I wrote for a site called Autism and Empathy: “An empath is a person who is aware that they read emotions, nuance, subtext, undercurrent, social space, relational behaviors, and gestural language to a greater degree than is deemed normal (you could also call them highly sensitive people).”


  11. Michael Forbes Wilcox
    | Reply

    I’m late the party here, but a newer book you might want to add to your reading list is ‘The Social Conquest of Earth,’ by Edward O. Wilson. In it, he revives Darwin’s original (and often pooh-poohed) idea of group selection. In other words, selection does not operate at the individual level; what makes a group “fit” (and thus more likely to prosper) is a complex interaction of all its members. Diversity helps. So does cooperation.

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