How Nice Are We?

What chimps can teach us about our mess of emotions.

The Age of Empathy by Frans de Waal.

Frans de Waal, director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, believes that it’s just as natural to be nice as it is be mean. Man may be wolf to man, as the old saying has it, but de Waal points out with casual eloquence in The Age of Empathy that wolves are often quite lovely to one another.

The scientific history of good nature in humans and other animals is a notably short one. Feelings like sympathy and concern, as well as acts of charity and nurture, have traditionally been ignored or dismissed. The study of niceness was a casualty of the Behaviorist school of psychology in the early 20th century, which defined the cognitive and emotional lives of animals out of existence altogether.

Philosophy and religion, as well as science, have long suggested that caring and kindness do not come from our biology but instead are ways in which we overcome our biology: Niceness is a refinement. Contrast the ease with which aggression, domination, and violence are attributed to our DNA. In the era of the “selfish gene,” any animal altruism gets recast as self-interest in disguise. The columnist David Brooks has summarized the findings like this: “From the content of our genes, the nature of our neurons and the lessons of evolution, it has become clear that nature is filled with competition and conflicts of interest.”

But lately scientists, from biologists to psychologists—with de Waal at the forefront—have begun suggesting that nature is filled with compassion, too. This isn’t a mere pendulum swing to warmth and cuddliness. Research on social animals—like elephants, dolphins, baboons, chimpanzees (deWaal’s specialty), and even hyenas—has complicated what has for too long been a reductive picture. These animals participate in dynamic societies made up of individuals, and their lives are replete with feelings, decisions, and intentions, rooted in biology yet elaborated in cooperative—and competitive—interaction. By comparing their worlds, with each other and with our own, de Waal explains, we can learn about the true anatomy of the social psyche. The result should deliver a jolt: Nature isn’t so red in tooth and claw, and civilization may not be so neatly edifying. In fact, if we have a destructive impulse to watch out for, it may be our readiness to embrace the “civilized” view that deep down we’re horrible.

De Waal, whose office sits perched atop the perimeter of a chimpanzee compound, has written extensively about the mutable hierarchies, loyal alliances, and intensely complicated politics of chimpanzee life. Like other primatologists, he has also observed that many deeply felt human attitudes and ideas have suggestive precursors in chimpanzee behavior. Here’s one that David Brooks might like: Ownership, it seems, is a profoundly ancient right if you are a primate. In decades of observations at the Yerkes colony, de Waal has noted that if the chimpanzees are given shareable food, like watermelons, they will race to get their hands on it. This is because whichever chimpanzee gets the watermelon first, even the lowliest cur, will be respected as the owner of that morsel by the most dominant chimpanzee. Its mates may beg and whine for some of it, but no one will take the food away.

But possession is only part of the story. The thing about ownership, says de Waal, is that in nature it goes hand in hand with sharing. Only 20 minutes after the food is put out, every chimpanzee in the colony will have some. “Owners share with their best buddies and family, who in turn share with their best buddies and family,” he writes. Though there is some tussling, the result is more peaceful than not. The ownership/sharing principle is as true for killer whales and wolves as it is for chimpanzees, according to de Waal. And as ownership goes with sharing, so does compromise with justice and, yes, bickering with peacekeeping. Fairness matters to social animals. If two monkeys perform the same task but are given different-size rewards, the monkey that is cheated acts cheated. It will refuse to do its job in the face of such inequity.

Humans, of course, are social animals, too, and de Waal argues that feeling and acting with empathy for one another are as automatic as aggression—part of our “bipolar nature.” It’s a good phrase that handily refutes the biology-is-all-bad idea, but with its suggestion of flip sides, it may miss what is most interesting about de Waal’s findings, which is that they challenge our penchant for tidy dichotomies. Some psychological traits are best understood as mosaiclike assemblages with seams that are invisible to us if all we do is look in the mirror. Take empathy. For humans, as comparative work with animals has helped to clarify, empathy has at least three layers.

The first is emotional contagion, the flush of emotion that runs involuntarily through a group of animals when something dramatic happens, like an eagle appearing above a group of monkeys or a man being punched on a crowded street. The next layer is feeling for others, our sympathetic response when we see another’s predicament. This happens via the body, says de Waal, and such “body-mapping” has been shown again and again in animals as well as humans. An old film of a chimpanzee on a stack of boxes reaching high for a banana shows another chimpanzee watching it, arms stretched up in sympathy. De Waal once watched a chimpanzee give birth, standing upright with her hands cupped beneath ready to catch her baby. An older female watching cupped her hands beneath her, too, of no practical help but full of feeling. In humans, such unpremeditated feeling has been shown by a Swedish psychologist who put electrodes on people’s face to prove that when we see pictures of angry faces, we frown; when we see happy faces, our mouths turn up.

The third part of empathy is what de Waal calls “targeted helping.” It’s the ability of onlookers to think their way into the mind of someone who needs help and, crucially, to give the kind of help that’s required. Humans do this all the time. If I see that you’ve dropped a heavy bag onto your foot, I’m going to try to move the bag, and if you’re hurt, I’ll console you. There has lately been, as de Waal puts it, “an avalanche” of research on abilities like perspective taking in apes, monkeys, dogs, and big-brained birds, and his book is packed with them. Joshua Plotnik, one of de Waal’s colleagues in Thailand, witnessed one elephant try to push her dying friend into a standing position. When that didn’t work, she stood supportively by her dying companion for days, even as humans tried to tempt her away with food. If a chimpanzee has lost its child, other chimpanzees will spend a lot more time grooming it. De Waal watched one chimpanzee mother take great care helping her son with a broken wrist, even at the cost of her younger offspring. (Indeed, de Waal says that the bond between mother and child is the template for all our relationships, even romantic ones.)

Yet it is a mistake, given this evidence of natural empathy, to assume that the trait is a tidy bundle that animals either have or don’t. Chimpanzees and humans, both apes, seem to have the same type of empathy, and undoubtedly this is because we are very closely related. But monkeys—which are more distantly related to us (and to chimpanzees, for that matter)—are a different story. De Waal spent years searching for the last human dimension of empathy—consolation—in monkeys but was forced to conclude that they don’t have it. Consider the baboon, an Old World monkey. They don’t make up after fights, and they don’t accommodate another baboon’s injuries. One researcher showed that if baboons lose a family member to a predator (sometimes being forced to hear their kin’s bones crunched), other baboons won’t groom it more. Even worse is baboon parenting. De Waal describes a band of baboons that crossed a flooded patch of the Okavango Delta in Botswana, only to look back and see that their offspring had been marooned on the patch of land they left behind. The water was too deep for the youngsters, who cried out in distress. The adult baboons occasionally answered their calls, but they never stepped into the water to go retrieve their stranded offspring in time. They couldn’t see their own capacity to change the situation. They were themselves marooned in a painful psychic landscape.

There is no word for what that particularly baboon combination of emotional parts is. To us, it just looks like an excruciatingly deficient version of human empathy. But from the perspective of evolution, it is its own thing, a distinctive trait that we’ve never really identified before. And this is what de Waal and scholars like him have begun to track. In doing so, they’re building a universal catalog of emotions and ideas that is not human-centric, a body of work that describes what it feels like to be biological. The endeavor has majesty. It also affirms a very unmajestic human experience: Our emotions are a mess. Of course they are—they are accumulated bits of psychic life thrown together over millions of years by evolution with no oversight or quality control about what they actually feel like. Just because we have a single word for a feeling or trait now doesn’t mean that it is homogenous or discrete.

Developing an appreciation of this complexity, de Waal suggests, could actually combat one of the least helpful of human tendencies: the impulse—not innate but socially very contagious—to reductively assume our biology is bad. As de Waal sees it, if we take that view—and the vogue of the “selfish gene” indicates we do—it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, for human behavior is decisively shaped by our sense of ourselves. By way of example, de Waal offers up Enron CEO Jeff Skilling, who was infamous for his brutal treatment of his own employees, never mind his exploitative approach to his company’s shareholders and regulators. Evidently inspired by Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, he justified his actions with the belief that all people were ultimately motivated only by greed and fear. But Skilling had the science wrong, as does almost everyone else. Genes act in “self-preserving” ways, de Waal explains, but that has nothing to do with human behavior. Dawkins never meant that selfish genes build selfish people.

Competing genes build complicated people, who aren’t just instinctively cruel but also involuntarily caring and curious. Which is why you are still wondering what happened to those poor baby baboons—and why we should hope de Waal continues to keep a wise eye on his chimpanzees.