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Learning Empathy From Apes


Aired 10/15/09

Are humans and other animals predisposed to take care of each other? We'll talk with noted psychologist Frans de Waal about his latest book "The Age of Empathy."

Frans de Waal will speak on Friday, October 16, 2009, at 6:30 pm, at the San Diego Natural History Museum. The event is free and open to the public, but you must reserve a seat.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Although Charles Darwin never said it, the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ has become part of what people understand about the theory of evolution. The implication has always been that the ‘fittest’ referred to individual members of species who were stronger, healthier and sometimes more clever than their counterparts. But what if fittest also referred to behaviors that contribute to the survival of groups of animals, behaviors that display awareness of the needs of others? That’s the question posed in a new book by renowned primatologist and psychologist Frans de Waal. The book reveals animal behaviors that defy the notion that nature is fundamentally cruel and suggests ways we can learn from the gentler side of the natural world. Frans de Waal’s book is called “The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society,” and it’s a pleasure to welcome you to These Days.

FRANS DE WAAL (Author): I’m glad to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you say human empathy has the backing of a long evolutionary history. Tell us what evidence you see of empathy in other mammals.

DE WAAL: Well, empathy is often defined in a very complex way in psychology, like you put yourself in the shoes of somebody else and you understand the situation. But – And if that’s empathy then not a lot of animals probably have it. But if empathy is defined—and that’s nowadays how people do it, actually—is defined as being in touch with someone, understanding their emotions feeling their emotions, being affected by their situation, then many animals have it and basically all mammals probably have it. And it originates from maternal care probably, that’s why mammals have it and that’s why it’s stronger developed in the female than the male. But your dog has empathy and monkeys certainly have it and primates have it and dolphins have it.

CAVANAUGH: And so what examples are there, let’s say, of your dog being empathetic?

DE WAAL: Well, if you’re upset, your dog is probably upset. If you’re happy, your dog is probably happy. If you’re sad – There’s actually experiments on instructing family members to act sad. This was done in order to test children but they found that dogs reacted very strongly to it as well.

CAVANAUGH: Well, that’s when dogs and other animals interact with humans. Do we have any evidence that when animals interact with each other that they show concern, this empathetic behavior?

DE WAAL: Yeah, there’s experiments. We’ve done many observations on primates. Actually, I did some observations here in San Diego at the bonobos at the zoo, long ago, and the bonobos have all sorts of interesting responses if someone is distressed. We call that consolation. They go over to someone who’s distressed, you know, embrace that individual, kiss it, or they try to reassure it.

CAVANAUGH: And what do they get out of that kind of behavior?

DE WAAL: Well, I don’t think they get directly something out of it. I think it evolved because for members of any species that is cooperative and social, it’s important to take care of others in the group because you depend on the group, you survive by the group. So there is – It evolved probably for self-serving reasons but at the moment that an individual shows that behavior, whether it’s a dolphin or a primate, I don’t think there’s any concern about self-interest at that moment. So it’s a genuinely unselfish behavior actually.

CAVANAUGH: Unselfish behavior, and do we know whether that kind of behavior is now innate or is it something that mammals learn through contact with other members of their species?

DE WAAL: I think it has an innate basis but it develops just as in human children. You can help them become more empathic or you can try to have them become less empathic, if that’s your desire, and so you can educate your children and in the same way, there’s a lot of learning in animals.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I wonder, what do – what kind of reaction do you get from people and other scientists when you say that animals like chimpanzees show compassion…

DE WAAL: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …or is that something that’s gaining credence now? Or is it still something that faces a lot of resistance?

DE WAAL: Well, a typical reaction is to say, well, chimpanzees also kill monkeys and they eat them alive and they kill each other sometimes, how can they be empathic? Well, if that’s the argument then, of course, humans are the prime example who cannot be empathic because there’s a lot of crime and violence in human society. So the fact that some animals sometimes are competitive and aggressive doesn’t argue against the fact that they have compassion and empathy. They have it usually directed at different individuals. They have fights with one group of individuals and they are empathic towards another group.

CAVANAUGH: The group that they like.

DE WAAL: Yeah, the one that they like more, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Now I read that some people criticize your theories because they’re too anecdotal…

DE WAAL: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …that they’re not research-based. How do you counter that?

DE WAAL: Well, we do a lot of research. When I write my books, obviously, in order to draw the attention of a general audience, I describe a lot of cases and I say this happened and that happened, and it sounds anecdotal. But we do actually experiments. I have a whole lab. I have 20 people and we have a whole laboratory where we test monkeys, for example, on pro-social behavior, so we have systematic tests that we do.

CAVANAUGH: And how does empathy and concern fit into our currently understanding of what natural selection is?

DE WAAL: Well, I think it helps us see that natural selection is a cruel and merciless process of elimination basically but it has produced highly social animals. Not all animals are like that but many animals like elephants and dolphins and apes, and humans for that matter, are highly social and so natural selection is not a gentle process but it has produced species that depend on each other for survival.

CAVANAUGH: And have we perhaps been missing – I think that that’s part of what your book postulates. Have we been missing another side of the coin when it comes to natural selection? That there – this survival of the fittest could include behaviors that we haven’t normally thought of when it – when we think about survival?

DE WAAL: Yeah, because people, usually they blame everything bad in the human species on nature. They say, well, we’re acting like animals, we’re killing each other. And everything good we sort of take for ourselves, it comes from our religion, our culture, or whatever we call it. But that’s, of course, not true. A lot of the more positive tendencies in human society such as solidarity and empathy and caring for each other, all of those tendency (sic) can be found in animals just as well.

CAVANAUGH: And even when animals don’t have anything to do with humans.

DE WAAL: I think animals have a lot to do with humans because humans are – humans are animals. So the responses of, let’s say, a chimpanzee to someone who’s distressed is to embrace that individual and groom. It’s very similar to what you see humans do. Anyone who works with children, for example, is constantly in the consolation business because there’s always a crying child that needs to be reassured and that’s very much a primate response that we show.

CAVANAUGH: I am speaking with Frans de Waal. His new book is called “The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society.” We have to take a short break and when we return, we’ll continue with our conversation. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. You’re listening to These Days. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and I’m speaking with primatologist, psychologist and writer Frans de Waal about his new book “The Age of Empathy.” There are two themes to your book, one concerns the evidence of empathy among animals and the other is about empathy in humans but you give a proviso. You say you’re not an expert in this area, so I wonder why you decided to write about it?

DE WAAL: Well, because I do want to connect the animal behavior and human behavior and show that empathy is not something that we invented yesterday. That’s a very old mammalian characteristic and there’s a lot of exciting, interesting research on humans nowadays. So, for example, one of the things they do is they put humans in a brain scanner and they have them to watch a pain stimulus applied to somebody else. And, actually, if you do that, and the same area lightens (sic) up in the brain that lightens up when you have pain yourself. So you literally feel the other’s pain, actually, so that kind of tests have been done with humans.

CAVANAUGH: And yet, you know, I remember that harkens back to a study that was done quite some time ago where graduate students were brought in and told to apply electric shocks to people that they didn’t know and they basically – they upped the electric voltage as time went by and it was used as a kind of corollary to what happened at Abu Ghraib.

DE WAAL: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: And I’m wondering, what are those two sides, conflicting sides there, why do we seem to be able to triumph over our empathetic feelings?

DE WAAL: Yeah, so we have both an empathic side and a violent side or…


DE WAAL: …an aggressive side. Actually, that experiment is called the Milgram experiment. It was done long ago. And one of the interesting conditions of that experiment was that the experimenter would walk away. He would say that he got a phone call and he would walk away to see if the subjects would keep giving shocks to – if the experimenter was not present. And they actually – the subjects would continue but at a much lower dose of voltage so that means that they were really impressed by the experimenter and as soon as the experimenter was gone, their empathy started to win out and they became friendlier. So, it’s sort of a conflict in this case between authority of the experimenter and the empathy of the subjects, and I think that’s something you see always in human behavior and also in animal behavior actually, is that there’s a conflict between competition—after all, I do want to have the biggest pizza slice, so to speak—so there’s competition but at the same time there’s some concern for the other, especially if the other is someone that you know like your wife or your children or your family members.

CAVANAUGH: And you feel, and in your book, “The Age of Empathy,” you make the case that we do need to emphasize the empathetic side more than the competition because we’ve done the competition, and tell us more about that.

DE WAAL: Well, if you look at society, especially since 2008, we have followed the scheme in American society of competition. Let’s have an open market system, unregulated, and see what happens. Now we’ve seen what happened, it was not very good what happened. And so I do think also in the healthcare debate of this moment, that’s a debate really about do we have some degree of solidarity in this society? Are we all going for our individual goals or do we have an overarching goal like education or healthcare? And I think this whole debate is important. It’s important for me to stipulate as a biologist that there is a support of biology for things like solidarity and empathy. If you look at social mammals—and we are social mammals—they all have this tendency to come up for the group. They live in a group, they thrive in a group, they could not possibly survive without the group and so, yes, they do care about the group level as a whole.

CAVANAUGH: That’s interesting. And is there – Do we know of any way to encourage empathetic behavior? We know of ways to encourage competition but do we also have the – any way in a society that our collective spirit of caring for each other is something that be massaged and sort of encouraged?

DE WAAL: Yeah, because in the studies with animals and also the studies with humans, we know that empathy is more pronounced the more similar you are to someone, the more close, socially close, you are to someone. So what you do to emphasize empathy is to emphasize similarity. What you do to emphasize violence is to de – so for example, we call it dehumanization. You dehumanize the animal – the enemy. You say the enemy are just cockroaches or they’re rats. That’s, for example, Hitler’s strategy was like that. So you dehumanize the enemy because you don’t want the similarity. So in order to get more empathy between people, or – and the same thing works with animals, I’m sure, it would be to empathize similarity.

CAVANAUGH: Now in the introduction of your book it starts with the sentence ‘greed is out, empathy is in.’ And I wonder if it maybe isn’t a little bit too soon to make that assessment of America?

DE WAAL: Yeah, there’s a bit of wishful thinking in there maybe. But it is true that we have a president now who emphasizes empathy at every turn so, for example, the Supreme Court nominee had to be empathic and that became a big issue in this society. So we do have a president to emphasize empathy and I think increasingly people are looking for ways of getting away from this totally unregulated competition scheme that we have had which has not worked so well, and to build a society that has a bit more cohesion, so to speak.

CAVANAUGH: Now, in a previous book of yours that dealt with somewhat similar ideas, it was called “The Ape and the Sushi Master,” and, first of all, why did you compare apes with sushi masters?

DE WAAL: Because that was – that’s a book on culture.


DE WAAL: Cultural transmission. And the sushi master and the sushi apprentice – sushi master apprentice, they have an interesting relation. The sushi master never explains anything, he just acts. And the sushi master apprentice has to watch, watch for three years and then he’s supposedly capable of doing all these things. And that’s a bit how culture is transmitted among primates, is there’s a lot of watching involved. There’s very little active instruction involved.

CAVANAUGH: And yet since – with that kind of behavioral learning that primates have and with the kind of empathetic history that…

DE WAAL: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …primates have that you trace in this book, is it still sort of a surprise to you that some people don’t see the connection and still resist the idea of evolution?

DE WAAL: Yeah, I always have trouble how – why that would be. I think one of the reasons is that people think that if you accept evolution, you have to drop your faith in God or something, which is really not the case. I don’t see why that would be the case. But they feel it is a threat to their religion but that’s not really how I see that. I think you can perfectly well be a devout Christian and believe in evolution.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder how you expect this book to be received by both the general public and the scientific community.

DE WAAL: Well, I think the scientific community is going to be interested in the empathy side, not so much in the political but there’s a political component to this book.


DE WAAL: But I do want to emphasize to the general public that this whole image that we have of nature as written, tooth and claw and mean and a struggle for survival being a violent struggle, that’s a wrong picture. That’s not really how nature works. There’s a lot of animals who depend on each other and have socially positive tendencies.

CAVANAUGH: And we just didn’t know this before because we didn’t watch, we didn’t look, we didn’t see?

DE WAAL: I think it has been neglected, yes.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you so much for speaking with us. And I want to let everybody know that Frans de Waal will speak Friday night at 6:30 at the San Diego Natural History Museum. The event is free and open to the public, but you must reserve a seat. You can go to for more. And thanks once again.

DE WAAL: You’re welcome.

CAVANAUGH: You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

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