The Age of Empathy, Frans De Waal, 2010


Bonding is essential for our species and it is what makes us happiest.

The standard of living has been rising steadily for decades, but has it change our happiness quotient? Not al all. Rather than money, success or fame, time spent with friends and family is what does people the most good.

When apes are locked for days in separate cages, when they are released the first minutes are all about social connections: they jump into each other arms, embracing and kissing.

There are even suggestions that about 70,000 years ago, our lineage was at the edge of extinction, living in scattered small bands with a global population of just a couple of thousand.

Kropotkin and Darwin believed that cooperative groups of animals would outperform less cooperative ones. The ability to function in a group and build a support network is crucial survival skill.

Given its colossal fraud, the Enron’ Coorporation 64 page “Code of Ethics” now seems as fictional as the safety manual of the Titanic.

Seeing colors is thought to have come about because our primate ancestors needed to tell ripe and unripe fruits apart.

Tiny ape infant chases the group’s top male, who run away “scared”, laughing all the while.

Body mapping between different species is even more puzzling. In one study, dolphins mimicked people next to their pool without any training on specific behavior. A man would wave his arms, and the dolphins would spontaneously wave their pectoral fins. A man would raise a leg and a dolphin its tail above the water.


Imitation requires identification with a body of flesh and blood.

A pianist will be able to recognize his own play among others he’s listening to.

Mai is a pregnant female chimps…when after 10 minutes the baby emerged, the crowd stirred. One chimpanzee screamed, and some embraced, showing how much everyone had been caught up in the process.

We mimic those we whom we identify. Being in sync has a bonding effect. Think about dancing. This is how animals have been bonding for millions of years.

Empathy offers direct access to “the foreign self”.  It is not reduced to other capacities (learning, association or reasoning).

There are gender differences in human empathy. Baby girls cry more than baby boys when they hear another baby crying. 2 year old girls witnessing others in distress treat them with more concern than do boy the same age. Adult women report stronger empathic reactions. But it seems that with age empathy level seems to converge – possibly with not much difference left in adulthood.

We seek the origin of empathy in parental care. Human condition is best describe not a  quest for freedom or striving for a virtuous life, but more about security, social companionships and a full belly. Our nobler strivings come into place only once the baser ones have been fulfilled.

Innate emotional response: on rat’s distress may simply distress another.

American psychiatrists reported the rhesus monkeys refused to pull a chain that delivered food to themselves if it shocked their companion (lab experiment).

Oscar the cat : no one dies on the third floor unless Oscar pays a visit and stays awhile. Oscar predicted the deaths of more than 25 patients. The cat strolls from room to room. When he decides that someone is about to die, he curls up beside them and leave the room only after the patient has taken his or her last breath.

A rhesus monkey : if she was quietly sitting and another monkey strolled by, her heart would remain steady provided the other was a member of a family or a low ranking monkey. Her heart would start racing if the other was of high rank. We could not see much in her face or posture, but the heart revealed high anxiety. In rhesus monkey society dominant individual rarely hesitate to punish subordinates.

A couple of juvenile chimps had picked up a little duckling and were swinging it around, being far too rough with it. An adult male ran over in an intimidating manner sans scattered the young apes. Before leaving the scene, he walk over to the last duckling and flicked it into the moat. It was as if the ape imagined what may be best for a different organism. Apes have strong sympathetic tendencies.

Under hardship, the cost of civility goes up.

Weighing the consequences of behavior over evolutionary time, it has endowed primates with empathy, which ensure that help others under the right circumstances.

Dolphins: trained to collect debris from her tank, one dolphin was amassing more and more fish rewards until her charade was exposed. She was hiding large items – newspapers, boxes – deep underwater only to rip small pieces from them, bringing them to the trainer one by one.

The proportion of primate, the best of them –the chimpanzee – passing the rouge test (connecting the mirror image with oneself) is far from 100%, and in some studies it is less than 50%.

Baboons do not change their behavior toward those who had just lost friends and family. But they have elevated stress level when confronted to a predator and often seek friendly relationship – grooming – to help cope with stress. Chimpanzee on the other hand are sensitive to another’s loss and offer true solace in a way we humans understand.


What we think about ourselves and our possibilities determines what we aspire to become.

IN chimps: In more distant relationships small favor stand out and were specifically rewarded.

The greatest problem today, with so many different groups rubbing shoulders on a crowded planet, is excessive loyalty to one’s own nation, group and religion.