Friday, October 19, 2012

The Age of Empathy - Frans De Waal(Review)

If you are one of the great many who subscribes to the view that nature is red in tooth and claw, that humans are fundamentally and biologically selfish and only culture constrains our selfish impulses, please read this book. After you have done that, send a copy to your local politician! By golly they certainly need huge doses of the author's wisdom and insight.

In many of the developed nations the last 30 years has been marked by a distinct cultural shift towards a more Ayn Rand type view of human behavior. I have no idea why anyone would trust a philosopher to instruct them about human behavior, it is like asking a child to create quantum mechanics.

Frans De Waal, in the great tradition of Darwin and all good science, seeks to enlighten us as to the origins of our behavior by referencing not theories and intuitions, but observations tempered by a rigorous empiricism. The Age of Empathy is an outstanding piece of work.  

The text is replete with the most remarkable stories of animal behavior observed in the wild, in zoos, and under expeirmental conditioons. It will fundamentally challenge your view of mammalian(and large brained birds) consciousness and especially their emotional life. These stories are a sheer delight to read, a wonderful change from the all too often dry and dust accounts of animal behavior.

This book has great potential to undo many of the misconceptions that arose from the popularity of The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins himself was concerned by this mis-interpretation but I still hold him to account because as a science educator he should have known that such a metaphor was bound to mislead. To his credit, Dawkins did attempt to overcome these mis-interpretations. For example:
I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behaviour. However, as we shall see, there are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals best by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals… My own feeling is that a human society based simply on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live… Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish
(Dawkins, 1989, p. 2-3). Dawkins, R. (1989). The selfish gene (New ed.). Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.
However, if you carefully parse the above quote it seems to be the case that Dawkins believes genes truly are selfishly motivated, which is just plain ridiculous. Methinks he has succumbed to the dangerous power of his own metaphor.

Let's be perfectly clear about this: co-operation and altruism are not merely latter additions to evolutionary dynamics. These qualities are embedded in evolution just as much as any selfish instinct. The most striking aspect of this is evidenced in bacteria. I was perplexed as to why individual bacterial cells will undergo apoptosis, programmed cell death. That made no sense to me until I realised that bacteria are frequently prey to bacteriophages, viruses that use bacteria to replicate.

Typically a virus will enter a cell and use the cell machinery to replicate until the cell literally swells and dies via necrosis, thus spelling the virus particles into the general environment and infecting a great many neighbouring bacteria. Apoptosis is ubiquitous in all forms of life and serves as a fundamental defence against cancer in multi-cellular organisms.

Hmmm, I just checked that I was right about apoptosis in bacteria and it turns out someone has beat me to the reason for its occurrence(no surprises there!).

Apoptosis prevents or severely limits this happening, particularly given it often involves a "folding in" of the cell, thereby limiting spread of the viral particles to surrounding cells. So even at the most basic cellular level we can witness a surprising altruism. This raises a fascinating point: altruism is not necessarily an intentional act and in this instance, contra the claims of neo-Darwinists, it represents a fundamental process in evolution. Score that up to group selection, a favourite disdain of that school of thought!

So let us dispense with the idea that we are "born selfish". As De Waal notes:
"In effect, society depends on a second invisible hand, one that reaches out to others."
Page 122. 
Given my above comments I suggest that the "second invisible hand" existed long before Adam Smith's marvelous insights into Homo Economicus. Neo-liberal economists, especially of the libertarian variety, have egregiously mis-presented Adam Smith's ideas. Unfortunately these economists have been very influential over recent decades. If you want an explanation for our current economic malaise and the ever widening distribution of wealth in advanced countries that aggressively embraced neo-liberal economics, consider that the mis-representation of Adam Smith, and the woefully atavistic ideas of human nature espoused by Ayn Rand and so many others, have played a major role in steering us into a dismal state of affairs that has resulted not only in great economic upheavel but also great environmental damage.

Charles Darwin saw the error of their ways long before they were born. Lamenting the distortion of his ideas by Herbert Spencer he commented,

Darwin on Spencer:
"I am not conscious of having profited in my work from Spencer's writings. His deductive manner of treating every subject is wholly opposed to my frame of mind. His conclusions never convince me ... . They partake more of the nature of definition than of laws of nature.
My emphasis
page 73. Rose, Hilary and Steven, Alas, Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology.

Frans De Waal starts where all good science starts: observation and experiment. This text is replete with so many surprising accounts of mammalian and more particular primate behavior that it  is an absolute delight to read. His prose is precise and clear, without rancour, nor does he resort to excessive theorising that so often permeates texts about behavior.

There is an extremely disconcerting moral implication arising from reading The Age of Empathy. While I have been aware of related research for some years now this text makes it abundantly clear that in complete contradiction to the Judeo-christian worldview that other animals exist merely for our enjoyment and sustenance it is perfectly obvious that mammals, and especially primates, and to a lesser extent large brained birds, experience very much the same range of emotions and a very similiar level of consciousness as ourselves. We treat these animals so bloody cruelly, as if there were mere automatons, as if they were simply there for our amusement, and we do this because our culture has embedded in us the idea that these "unthinking brutes" can feel no real pain, no real remorse, no "human" emotions, are lacking in compassion and allocentric capacity(the ability to perceive another point of view, another's emotional or  potential emotional responses). All utterly wrong.

Consider the wisdom of Kant:

*Immanuel Kant
Always recognize that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as means to your end.

To that we must now add:

Always recognise that many species are ends, and do not use them as means to your end.

To close I shall quote a statement from the closing chapter of The Age of Empathy:

A society based purely on selfish motives and market forces may produce wealth, yet is can't produce the unity and mutual trust that make life worthwhile. This is why surveys measure the greatest happiness not in the wealthiest nations but rather in those with the highest levels of trust among citizens.

Thank you Professor De Waal, this is a text for the 21st century and will eventually be hailed as as a masterpiece that will transform our opinion not only about "human nature" but also how we must radically transform our understanding of our place in the world and our relationship to the other animals. We are Risen Apes but we have not risen far enough.

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