The Age of Empathy

Sunday Tasmanian – Pet Column – Anne Boxhall; January 3rd 2016

Looking for a novel resolution this new year? How about resolving to listen to our inner ape.

According to a growing band of biologists and pyschologists, nature is full of examples of empathy and cooperation from which we humans could learn.

Many non-human animals survive not by eliminating each other or keeping everything for themselves, but by cooperating, sharing and looking out for each other. Greed is out and empathy is in, says eminent academic Frans De Waal, selected by Time magazine as one of the world’s most influential people.

In his book The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, De Waal suggests empathy comes naturally to a great variety of animals, including humans. By studying social behaviours in animals such as bonding, the herd instinct, the forming of trusting alliances and conflict resolution, de Waal demonstrates that animals, (human and non-human) are “pre-programmed to reach out.”

From day one, humans have innate sensitivities to faces, bodies, and voices; we’ve been designed to feel for one another. Animal nature is characterised as much by kindness and collaboration as it is by competition and aggression.

Drawing from his own research with non-human primates, de Waal found that acting with empathy is as automatic as aggression. For humans and other advanced animals, sharing, compromise and justice matters, a theory which runs counter to the assumption that people are essentially selfish and competitive.

The fields of politics, law and finance often work to uphold this assumption but it’s not all about the darker forces. While competition has been a vital force in the evolution of life on Earth, it has not acted alone. Cooperation too, has played an essential part – just ask the animals.

The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society by Frans De Waal                                                  2009 Random House Inc, New York

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