The Age of Empathy | Frans de Waal

Summary of: The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society
By: Frans de Waal


In ‘The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society’, Frans de Waal challenges the popular belief that human nature is fundamentally selfish and competitive. The book explores the lesser-known side to human nature—empathy, synchrony, interconnectedness, and our capacity to act selflessly for others. De Waal delves into our motivations for war and the bonds of marriage, while debunking myths surrounding Social Darwinism and behaviorism. The author discusses the essential role of empathy in human survival and development, providing a glimpse into our intrinsically social and empathetic nature.

The Dangerous Myth of Selfishness

The book “The Business of Belief” debunks the popular idea that human nature is inherently selfish. The author argues that this myth is dangerous and has led to disastrous consequences in the past, such as the infamous case of ENRON. The theory of Social Darwinism, an outlook on life that promotes the idea of “survival of the fittest,” further perpetuates this myth. This ideology has also found its way into the business world, with examples like John D. Rockefeller Jr. believing that the expansion of big business at the expense of smaller ones is simply a “law of nature.” However, these beliefs are misunderstandings of human nature and have created self-fulfilling prophecies. The author emphasizes that it’s important to challenge and debunk these myths to create a healthier and more humane corporate culture.

The History of Human Warfare

Contrary to Churchill’s opinion, human history is mostly peaceful with fleeting episodes of violence. The walls of Jericho weren’t a result of warfare, and our ancient ancestors, living in small populations, were seldom at risk of conflicts. The warfare and organized conflict of modern times are due to our natural herd instinct.

The Science of Synchrony

Our ability to synchronize with others stems from a sense of interconnectedness, which is vital for survival. From the contagiousness of yawning to coordinated movements in animals, the herd instinct plays a critical role. It allows for the formation of important bonds, even influencing our reactions to certain behaviors. Synchrony has more value than just tipping and subtle mimicry, shaping our connections with others in significant ways.

Society and Interdependence

From the 18th-century social contract theory to the present, humans have always been interdependent beings. Humans depend on each other physically and emotionally, and the most reliable way to extend life expectancy is to get married and stay married. The closeness between couples even makes them look alike over the years.

Human beings are highly dependent on each other, both emotionally and physically. An example of this is the agony of solitary confinement which is often regarded as one of the worst punishments second to death. Many people in solitary confinement will intentionally cause trouble just so that they can interact with the guards. It can be said that society is a creation of collective beings.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an 18th-century philosopher, referred to the origin myth that negates the idea of society being a creation of autonomous beings as a social contract. According to this theory, society is a compromise that requires people to give up part of their freedom in exchange for safety. However, assuming that our ancestors didn’t rely on other people for survival and happiness is mere speculation as the fundamental nature of humans is dependent on each other.

The bonds of marriage are so strong that it can impact physical similarities between couples. Studies have shown that married couples who share emotions on a regular basis tend to look like one another, and this physical similarity becomes strongest between couples who are reportedly the happiest. This level of bonding allows one partner to “internalize” the other to the point that it becomes apparent to any observer that they are indeed a couple.

In conclusion, human beings have always been and will continue to be interdependent beings, relying on each other emotionally and physically. Marriage is important and plays a significant role in the lives of couples, impacting physical similarities and extending life expectancy.

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