Animal empathy and its political implications

Primatologist Frans de Waal has some surprising news about human empathy: among the beasts of the animal kingdom, we are not alone in this emotion. De Waal says research shows that both lab rats and elephants, among other creatures, have an instinctual tendency toward empathetic behavior. We asked de Waal, author of "The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society," published by Harmony Books in September, to apply his conclusions to the political arena. De Waal is a professor of primate behavior in the psychology department at Emory University.

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Are Americans lacking in empathy?

You would almost think so hearing Rush Limbaugh mock Michael J. Fox's Parkinson's symptoms or Missouri Rep. Cynthia Davis opposing school lunches, saying that "hunger can be a positive motivator."

The latest indicator came when Arizona Senator Jon Kyl felt that there was no need for employers to cover maternity care since he himself had never had any need for it.

If men lack solidarity with women or if hungry kids don't bother us, empathy is in short supply.

But at other times, this country has plenty of it. "Balloon boy" riveted the nation thanks to our identification with both the boy and his family. It was human empathy that made us fear for his life as if it were our own, which is why the deception was all the more cruel and criminal.

At the intersection of private interests and the greater good, however, things change radically. One group of people maintains its empathy for others, whereas another actively suppresses it. These groups are known as tender-hearted liberals and hard-nosed conservatives. The latter claim that we won't be doing the poor any favor by helping them, since everyone is better off fending for themselves.

Conservatives offer elaborate rationalizations why the misery of others is none of our business, including that this is how nature works. Thus, a group with little or no affection for real Darwinism tells us that since nature is based on survival of the fittest, society ought to be as well.

I disagree. Natural selection has produced highly social and cooperative animals, which rely on each other for survival. On its own, a wolf cannot bring down large prey, and chimpanzees slow down for companions who cannot keep up due to injuries or sick offspring. Why accept the assumption of cut-throat nature when there is so much proof to the contrary?

Empathy is an ancient capacity found in all mammals, ranging from dogs to apes. Some large-brained species even adopt each other's perspective. For example, when a chimpanzee youngster at a zoo was choking with a rope twisted around its neck, an adult male lifted her up to take the pressure off the rope before gently unwrapping it.

There are hundreds of such examples, and increasingly also experiments that test prosocial tendencies. They show that other primates care about the welfare of others.

This is relevant to how we structure our own society. It plays a role in the health care debate. Consider the term itself -- it has the word care in it. It is not called health service, even less health business, but health care, thus stressing human concern for others.

Instead of killing this laudable tendency toward empathy with arguments based on a faulty understanding of the natural world, I just hope we will give it room to be expressed. In the end, everyone will be better off if we join forces the way our ancestors and their ancestors have done for millions of years.

By Steven E. Levingston |  November 10, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

I do believe that we are becoming a more violent society & we worship force,= & fighting. Furthermore the 2nd amendment was written when people ownedmuskets for heaven's sake. I would have no problem with individuals owninf one musket. We should outlaw all other weapons. D=Furthermore we call ourselves Christian but we kill when Christ said don't -ignore the plight of poor when Christ said To love him & feed his sheep. We are supposed to "love our enemies" Instead we participate in war thru out taxes and votes. We ar NOT a Christian country.
Barry Greever

Posted by: eaglwulf | November 10, 2009 1:33 PM

While it is true that cheetahs are marvelously adapted to prey on antelope, our species has evolved to a higher level. We do sense the better angels of our nature as we interact with others and with other species.

Posted by: lheffelkcrrcom | November 11, 2009 8:39 AM

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