Saturday, November 7, 2009

De Waal's "The Age of Empathy"

Frans de Waal has written a series of books on his specialization, the higher primates. This book is especially timely because it looks at empathy just when it appears that the mood of society is changing. He captures this in his preface:
Greed is out, empathy is in.

The global financial crisis of 2008, together with the election of a new American president, has produced a seismic shift in society. Many have felt as if theywere waking up from a bad dream about a big casino where the people's money had been gambled away, enriching a happy few without the slightest worry about the rest of us. This nightmare was set in motion a quarter century earlier by Reagan-Thatcher trickle-down economics and the soothing reassurance that markets are wonderful at self-regulation. No one belives this anymore.
While I agree heartily with this sentiment, I'm afraid he's wrong. The mood may be swinging back to focus on the community but it hasn't been the complete change that de Waal claims. We are empathic animals, but the ideology of the 1980s is not yet dead. The culture wars continue.

Here's a bit from his first chapter "Biology, Left and Right" which I'm deeply sympathetic with, and wish were true, but unfortunately the facts don't support:
The ugly secret of economic success is that it sometimes comes at the expense of public funding, thus creating a giant underclass that no one cares about. Katrina exposed the underbelly of American society. occurred to me that this is the theme of our time: the common good. We tend to focus on wars, terror threats, globalization, and petty political scandals, yet the larger issue is how to combine a thriving economy with a humane society. It relates to health care, education, justice, and -- as illustrated by Katrina -- protection against nature.
I'm not as optimistic as de Waal. I see some evidence of turning away from the ethic of greed and fanatical individualism, but not a sea change. De Waal is overstating the case. I agree that we need this fundamental change, I just don't see evidence that the large majority have turned away from the ideology of the 1980s.

I don't want to give the impression that this book is devoted to politics and economics. It isn't. I just wanted to point out that de Waal has taken on a key theme of our time and gone beyond what a primatologist normally focuses on and put his study of animal nature into a broader context.

This book, like all of de Waal's books, is informative, interesting, and thought provoking. It makes connections with ideas that go beyond the narrow focus of writings by most specialists in ape behaviour. This book will open your eyes to the concept of empathy and community that have too long been neglected by the reigning ideology of our time.

While the biology covered in this book is deeply interesting, I love the bits where he points out the relevance of his science to our current political culture:
When Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana in 2005, our television screens showed massive human despair. The disaster was exacerbated by the gross incompetence of agencies that were supposed to deal with its aftermath and by the cold detachment of politicians at the highest levels. The rest of the nation watched with a mixture of horror, pity, and worry. The worry was not without self-interest, because obviously the way one mammoth disaster is being handled tells us something about how others may be handled in the future, including ones that hit us. The lackluster official response had a twofold impact: amazing generosity from the public, and a shift in perception about governmental responsibility. Until Katrina, the nation's leadership had gotten away with its everyone-for-himself philosophy, but the catastrophe raised serious doubts about it. As Barack Obama said three years later, "We are more compassionate than a government that lets veterans sleep on our streets and families slide into poverty; that sits on its hands while a major American city drowns before our eyes."
I agree with Obama's sentiment, but his actions have fallen short. He has not saved the US from massive unemployment because he was too timid on his stimulus bill. And the fact that Republicans won big in this November election says to me that the serpent of self-centredness is not dead. The age of Reagan still lives and its philosophy of 'me first' and greed is not gone.

Read the book. Learn some science. Be surprised at some of the thought provoking social comments interspersed in the text.

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