Frans de Waal

The Age of Empathy

“Our bodies and minds are made for social life, and we become hopelessly depressed in its absence.”

I find myself touching strangers lately. Casually on a jacketed arm as a means to pass or thank them for tiny kindnesses. Weird behavior in normal days, downright anti-social during Covid.

And yet, it makes me feel better. Brighter.

“Our bodies and minds are made for social life,” argues Dutch biologist/primatologist Frans de Waal (born October 29, 1948) “And we become hopelessly depressed in its absence.”

Drawing of murmuration by artist Ann Pease. 1 of 3
“Starling murmuration” paint on canvas, 2020. By North Yorkshire artist Ann Pease. “I work to capture the organic nature of the shapes birds make while flocking together.”

I also catch people’s eyes. I smile – my eyes, ears and forehead doing the bulk of the work due to facemasks.

A laugh is golden. A shared laugh is more than a smile, it activates the belly, the hands, even the legs. Once begun the body unwinds into laughter. I’ve been sharing a lot of laughs with strangers.

Philosophers have been exasperated by the problem of why one of humanity’s finest achievements, its sense of humor, is expressed with the sort of crude abandonment associated with animals. There can be no doubt that laughter is inborn. The expression is a human universal, one that we share with our closest relatives, the apes.

In his The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, author de Waal makes the case that laughter, like many of our social functions, are inborn biological features.

Our bodies and minds are made for social life, and we become hopelessly depressed in its absence. This is why next to death, solitary confinement is our worst punishment. Bonding is so good for us that the most reliable way to extend one’s life expectancy is to marry and stay married. The flip side is the risk we run after losing a partner. The death of a spouse often leads to despair and a reduced will to live that explains car accidents, alcohol abuse, heart disease, and cancers that take the lives of those left behind. Mortality remains elevated for a half a year following a spouse’s death.

Drawing of murmuration by artist Ann Pease. 2 of 3
Pease works quickly across the canvas imitating the birds in “a staccato sort of expression. At the point of the dot I’m thinking of that bird and its relationship to the flock, but like when you see a murmuration in real life, you’re only seeing/thinking of that one individual for a moment and then it’s all seen in the context of the whole shape.”

While I consider empathy and kindness, I remember George Saunders’ failures of kindness, and nurse Christie Watson on the language of kindness and the indefatigable acts that make us human.

But most of all I return to illustrator Maira Kalman who wrote “If you are ever bored or blue stand on the street corner for half an hour…”

Illustration by Maira Kalman from Kalman's book "Principles of Uncertainty" in the Examined Life Library.
“If you are ever bored or blue…” from Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty.

Kalman obliges something physical. “I imitate their step…” she writes (and more to the point, illustrates). This physical bond is what Waal calls “embodied cognition.”

The field of “embodied” cognition is still very much in its infancy but has profound implications for how we look at human relations. We involuntarily enter the bodies of those around us so that their movements and emotions echo within us as if they’re our own. This is what allows us, or other primates, to re-create what we have seen others do. Body-mapping is mostly hidden and unconscious but sometimes it “slips out,” such as when parents make chewing mouth movements while spoon-feeding their baby. They can’t help but act the way they feel their baby ought to. Similarly, parents watching a singing performance of their child often get completely into it, mouthing every word. I myself still remember as a boy standing on the sidelines of soccer games and involuntarily making kicking or jumping moves each time someone I was cheering for got the ball. The same can be seen in animals.

The strongest feelings of empathy carry a physical force, unseen grappling hooks. I noticed when my newly-walking toddler fell forward on the ground that I lurched instinctively in some connected imitation.

Imitation, according to de Waal, has a unique meaning.

Not only do we mimic those with whom we identify, but mimicry in turn strengthens the bond. Human mothers and children play games of clapping hands either against each other or together in the same rhythm. These are games of synchronization. And what do lovers do when they first meet? They stroll long distances side by side, eat together, laugh together, dance together. Being in sync has a bonding effect. Think about dancing. Partners complement each other’s moves, anticipate them, or guide each other through their own movements. Dancing screams “We’re in synchrony!” which is the way animals have been bonding for millions of years.

[…]

When I see synchrony and mimicry-whether it concerns yawning, laughing, dancing, or aping—I see social connection and bonding. I see an old herd instinct that has been taken up a notch. It goes beyond the tendency of a mass of individuals galloping in the same direction, crossing the river at the same time. The new level requires that one pay better attention to what others do and absorb how they do it. For example, I knew an old monkey matriarch with a curious drinking style. Instead of the typical slurping with her lips from the surface, she’d dip her entire underarm in the water, then lick the hair on her arm. Her children started doing the same, and then her grandchildren. The entire family was easy to recognize.

Drawing of murmuration by artist Ann Pease. 3 of 3
“Murmuration”, paint on canvas, by Ann Pease. Though they move as one, murmurating birds only communicate to the birds nearest them and their synchronised flow is really just a series of distinct actions. Learn more.

Our connectedness to others is seen and felt in our physical consolation both within and among species.

Comforting body contact is art of our mammalian biology, going back to maternal nursing, holding and carrying, which is why we both seek and give it under stressful circumstances. People touch and hug at funerals, in hospitals around sick or injured loved ones, during wars and earthquakes, and following defeat in sports.

I think of Rebecca Solnit’s study of human intervention and compassion in the face of disaster and the last scene of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the novel into which he poured his own phalanx theories of unity and brotherhood.

And David Whyte’s book Consolations in which the poet writes:

Whether we touch only what we see or the mystery of what lies beneath the veil of what we see, we are made for unending meeting and exchange, while having to hold a coherent mind and body, physically or imaginatively, which in turn can be found and touched itself. We are something for the world to run up against and rub up against: through the trials of love, through pain, through happiness, through our simple everyday movement through the world.

From David Whyte’s Consolations

For more on the idea that we are unified by a biological kinship, listen to de Waal’s engaging TED Talk on our hard-wired reciprocity not just aggression. Take a turn in James Baldwin’s dignified plea for social integration, Erich Fromm on love as the antidote to human separateness, de Waal’s additional work on the limits of knowledge in our understanding of animals, and my own pieces on the meaning and importance of touch and an implacable call for kindness.

“We are made for cooperation” argued Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius more than 2000 years ago in his gathered thoughts Meditations. It has always been thus.