What other primates can teach us about human nature.
Addressing the question of whether it is possible to “combine a thriving economy with a humane society,” zoologist de Waal (Psychology/Emory Univ.; Our Inner Ape, 2005, etc.) answers with a resounding yes, turning the tables on economists like Milton Friedman, who justify cutthroat competition based on the notion of survival-of-the-fittest. The author also suggests that the central metaphor in Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene (1976) has been taken too literally. The contagion of phenomena such as laughter, yawning, stretching and stampedes in the face of danger are evidences of herd behavior that we share with other species. A new field of research, “embodied” cognition, explores how empathy emerges as we and other primates “involuntarily enter the bodies of those around us so that their movements and emotions echo within us as if they’re our own.” In 1992, researchers found a mechanism for this behavior, observing “mirror neutrons” firing in a monkey’s brain whether they themselves were eating a peanut or watching an experimenter do so. While not denying the existence of aggression and competition in nature, de Waal provides many charming examples of how empathy—especially when it is coupled with the higher-order cognitive abilities of primates, whales, dolphins and humans, which all have the ability to “adopt another’s point of view”—allows animals to show compassion across species boundaries. This social glue is evidenced in pets who act as companions, peacemaking primates who try to stop fights and offer comfort to the vanquished and mothers responding to their young. De Waal cites the “evolutionary antiquity” of empathy to argue that “society depends on a second invisible hand, one that reaches out to others.”
An appealing celebration of our better nature.