How human are chimps?
Some scientists have recently suggested that it is time for the genus Pan (including chimps) should be reclassified as Homo, because chimps are capable of human behaviour. Primates display love and affection towards each other, they form alliances within their social groups and pass on knowledge to younger members of the group. In short, they display behaviour that is based on empathy and cooperation.
Drawing on a lifetime’s experience of studying animals Frans de Waal has come to realise that animals survive by sharing, evolution has pre-programmed us to care for, and help, others. It seems that the harsh view of mankind offered by Social Darwninism is not a view supported by contemporary science.
Social behaviour in animals, the herding instinct, bonding rituals, expressions of consolation, even conflict resolution, demonstrates that animals are designed to feel for each other (humanity’s natural condition is also to be group animals). From chimpanzees caring for mates that have been wounded by leopards, elephants reassuring youngsters in distress to dolphins preventing sick companions from drowning the animal kingdom has many examples of altruism.
“Greed is out, empathy is in… Human empathy has the backing of a long evolutionary history.”
Can studying the role of empathy in evolution among animals help to build a just society based on the more generous elements of human nature? Is evolutionary biology the force behind the sense of social responsibility and community building that are the keynotes of Obama’s political vision and David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ as they lead us into a new Age of Empathy?
Written accessibly, with an incisive intelligence and humour, providing a wealth of anecdotes and scientific examples, The Age of Empathy is essential reading to understand how evolutionary biology can change our society.
Frans de Waal is a Dutch-born biologist and one of the world’s most respected primatologists. In 2007 Time magazine selected him as one of the World’s 100 most influential people. He currently works at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University, Atlanta.
“There is a widely held assumption that humans are hard-wired for relentless and ruthless competition… Frans de Waal sees nature differently – as a biological legacy in which empathy, not mere self interest, is shared by humans, bonobos and animals.”
Ben Macintyre, ‘The Times’
“A pioneer in primate studies, Frans de Waal sees our better side in chimps, especially our capacity for empathy… Dr de Waal has gathered ample evidence that our ability to identify with another’s distress… has deep roots in the origin of our species.”
The Wall Street Journal
“Freshly topical… a corrective to the idea that all animals – human and otherwise – are selfish and unfeeling to the core.”