IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

What chimps can teach us

Is empathy a uniquely human trait? Research released just today indicates that human culture rather than raw genetics is the prime factor behind altruism on a wide scale - that is, the sentiment that moves us to respond to tragedies involving people we don't even know.

But we're not the only species that exhibits fellow feeling. The impulse to cooperate is as much a part of evolutionary biology as the impulse to compete. You might not realize that, however, if all you know about evolution is that it's survival of the fittest.

In his latest book, "The Age of Empathy," Emory University primatologist Frans de Waal presents fresh evidence that our empathethic behavior is rooted in hard-wired habits that can be seen among chimpanzees, our closest relatives in the animal world, as well as in far-removed species such as mice.

For decades, de Waal has conducted eye-opening research into how monkeys and apes find ways to share their food, share affection and mirror each other's behavior. His studies of chimps have pointed to the origins of our language and our moral code as well. When it comes to getting along with each other, de Waal makes it clear we could learn a thing or two from the chimps.

During a recent interview, de Waal and I discussed the meaning of empathy - a word that has become something of a politicalfootball - and related it to subjects ranging from religion to, believe it or not, the current health-care debate.

Our natural impulse to help out others, even if they're not related to us, plays a part in the discussion over reforming America's health-care system, he acknowledged. "But empathy alone is not sufficient for that debate," de Waal said. "You don't want to base a health-care system on just feelings for others. You also want to bring in selfish calculations, which are usually going to be common-good calculations. Like, 'if you had a good health-care system that covered everyone, we would all be getting something out of it.'"

Another part of the strategy would be to get across the potentially dire consequences of doing nothing. That requires an understanding of the long-range view - involving whole societies rather than small family groups, over a time frame of decades rather than months. De Waal admits that such a perspective is a tall order, whether you're talking about health care, global climate change or other issues with long-term consequences.

"My primates are not very good at long-term thinking," de Waal said. "They think short-term: 'What's in it for me?' That's how they operate. ... I don't think humans are particularly good at this either, and that's why the politicians have a task to bring that across and explain why this is a better system."

Here's an edited transcript of the Q&A:

Cosmic Log: Could you explain what you mean when you talk about empathy in other species, and discuss what you see as a carryover from our cousins on the primate family tree?

De Waal: Well, empathy is sometimes defined by psychologists as a high-level cognitive feat – you put yourself in the shoes of somebody else. But actually, the core of empathy is an emotional tie between A and B: You see someone crying and this makes you feel sad. I see you smiling and that makes me happy, or I smile myself. That’s a very basic connection you can observe in many other animals. I’m not saying that you will necessarily see it in fish or birds, or reptiles, but certainly in mammals. There are now even studies in rodents indicating this capacity.

When you get to our closer relatives, you get to more complex relationships that are more similar to ours. They're not just connected with each other and affected by each other's emotions. They are also interested in figuring out what is going on with the other and understanding it, and maybe helping in a particular way. And so in the primates especially, our close relatives, you get more forms of behavior that are more similar to what we call empathy.

Q: One of the things that you mentioned in the book as an important concept is the idea of taking on the perspective of someone else. It sounded as if perspective-taking was something special for the way humans approach empathy. If that’s correct, perhaps you could explain a little bit more about perspective-taking.

A: Yes, humans don’t reach that stage immediately, but after a certain age, maybe 4 or 5, they become good at perspective-taking. Not all animals have perspective-taking – I mentioned rodents, for example. So when we speak of empathy in rodents, or dogs, or maybe horses, we’re not necessarily talking about perspective-taking, we’re talking more about an emotional connection.

Perspective-taking takes more intelligence. You are not only emotionally connected to someone else but you have some understanding.

Let me give you an example: There was a juvenile chimpanzee at a zoo in Sweden who had a rope wrapped twice around its neck, and was choking. It was basically going to die. So the highest-ranking male of the group, the alpha male, came over and lifted the juvenile up with one arm to take the pressure off the rope. With his free hand, the alpha male unwrapped the rope carefully from the neck of the juvenile and then released the juvenile. He basically saved his life.

That’s interesting, because that’s a form of empathy and altruism where not only is this male emotionally affected – otherwise he would not have taken the action, of course – but he has the intelligence to do the right thing. Instead of pulling at the juvenile, which would have killed him, he finds an intelligent solution. And in order to do that, he needs to understand what is happening to the other and what the solution is going to be.

Q: Another concept that people often talk about when they discuss affinity within groups is the idea of kin relationships, and the distinction between individuals inside vs. outside the kin group. In the example you just used, was it a situation involving kin?

A: Empathy is not necessarily limited by kinship, but it is biased. Empathy, in other species as well as humans, is always biased toward the "in" group over the "out" group. This is already known through the studies of empathy in mice. They have it for mice that they know, but they don’t have it for mice they don’t know. This is probably a very general characteristic of empathy, that it’s more directed toward individuals close to you than those who are distant from you, or different from you.

This bias has to do with the fact that animals live in groups to survive, and they need to care about their group members. They are dependent on them. But they don’t need to care about anyone else. So empathy has been “constructed,” so to speak, by evolution in such a way that it always favors the ones close to you.

Q: You have said that that sense of empathy really needs to be broadened. Is that the sort of broadening that you’re talking about, the need to take in a wider "in" group when we're talking about the human species?

A: Yeah, I think the challenge for our kind of society is exactly that: We now live in societies that are much bigger than the original groups we came from. We came from a group life of 100 to 200 individuals, and the whole system worked fine in that environment. But now we live in societies with millions of individuals, where we’re constantly surrounded by people we barely know or don’t know at all. That’s the challenge of our time, to expand empathy in such a way that we reach beyond just the in group and apply it to all the other groups that surround us.

We don’t necessarily need to do that equally. I’m not saying that we should have more empathy for strangers than for your our own family. I don’t think that we want to erase the boundaries that exist, but our society requires that we look a little bit beyond our in group.

Q: One of the things that has cropped up in evolutionary biology is the idea that there may have been some sort of innovation that allowed humans to expand the working group or the community beyond, say, 150 individuals. Some people have tied that to the rise of religion and hierarchical organization. Do you subscribe to that idea? Is there something uniquely human about religious or hierarchical behavior, or do you see the roots of that in other species?

A: Well, religion I consider uniquely human. I don’t think we have evidence that other animals have "religion." The definition of religion is often phrased as "Do you believe in God? Yes or no?" But personally, I look at religion as a social instrument. Religion is one way to bind the members of a group together, and have them march toward the same goal, so to speak, which is formulated by the religion. So I look at religion mainly as a social item that promotes cooperation within the group, and sometimes is hostile toward outside groups.

I don’t see any equivalent for that in other primates, even though there has been speculation, of course, very old speculation that our model of God was the "super alpha male" – that we modeled our concept of God was modeled after an almighty alpha male who ruled the group with a firm hand. So it's not as if primate social organization and religion are totally disconnected, necessarily. But I do think that religion is something uniquely human.

Q: Do you have any prescriptions from primatology that could be applied to putting the human species in a better state when it comes to empathy?

A: Based on animal studies and also human brain studies, all the studies we have at the moment show that empathy is a hard-wired disposition that we have inherited from our primate ancestors – so solidarity, and empathy, and sympathy, and helping behavior are part of our genetic makeup. This is something that our political ideologues, or politicians in general as well as economists and philosophers, need to take into account. Sometimes our society is structured after principles that we think exist in nature – so, for example, we structure our society based on competitive principles and the argument that “every man is in it for himself” in a selfish sort of way, and that’s how society ought to operate.

What I’m arguing in the book is that that’s a view of nature which is totally outdated. That’s a view that came up in the 19th century: “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” and therefore we need to mimic that in society. But I think society needs to take into account that we are actually, deep down, a highly social species in which individuals are not just in it for themselves. Each individual is connected to all the other individuals in society.

There’s not some sort of complete lesson that you can draw from primate research and then apply to human society. It’s more about the general statement that basing society purely on individualistic, competitive principles short-changes human nature, because human nature is much broader than that.

Q: That seems to be the bottom line for your book – that a lot of people have that “survival of the fittest” conception of evolution, but you mention that there’s a “second invisible hand” at work in evolution.

A: They use nature to justify those views. And, of course, the people who do that are usually not biologists. A biologist would say, “Listen, this is a cardboard view of evolution.”

Q: Are there particular things that you think will be key issues for primatology going forward?

A: Yes, let me describe a little experiment, because I think your readers would probably want to know how we prove these things, basically. There’s an experiment that we’ve recently done and on which we are now elaborating. It’s a very simple test that we do with capuchin monkeys. We put two capuchin monkeys from the same group side by side in a test chamber, and one of the monkeys does a task. It needs to choose between two tokens, two little pieces of plastic. If it picks a token and gives it back to us, it gets a reward. That’s all it needs to do.

Now, the difference between the two tokens is that they’re differently colored. One of them feeds only the monkey that does the task. The other one feeds the monkey, plus its partner. The partner is just sitting there, it’s not doing anything. We call one of the tokens the “selfish token,” and the other the “prosocial token.” We do this test 25 times in a row. During the test, the monkeys see, “OK, this token gives just me a reward, and that one give me plus my partner a reward.” For the monkey who is making the choice, it makes no difference. He always gets a reward regardless of what he does.

The monkeys prefer the prosocial token. Over the course of testing, they start selecting that one more and more – as if they derive some pleasure from the fact that the other guy is getting something. That’s a test of prosociality, which shows that monkeys care about the welfare of others – which is a big issue in human research. Do we care about the welfare of others? There are now five experimental studies in the literature, not just by us but by other researchers as well, showing that primates care about the welfare of others. So that just shows that monkeys are not all about competition.

Q: I can imagine how you could adjust the economics of that sort of test to find out whether the monkeys were willing to pay an extra cost to be prosocial – for example, reducing the reward given out to two monkeys for the prosocial token, in comparison with the single reward for the selfish token.

A: Those are things you can do, or you can alternate between the two monkeys, and then it becomes more of a reciprocity game. “I do you a favor, now will you do me a favor?” Or you can make the value different. Our monkeys don’t like inequity, so if the partner gets better food than they themselves get, they are not so keen on that. They start making less social choices, because they actually would like to get the same thing or better, not something worse.

For more on de Waal's work, check out his research group's "Living Links" Web site at Emory University, or do a search on his name at And feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts about empathy and evolution in the comment section below.

Join the Cosmic Log team by signing up as my Facebook friend or following b0yle on Twitter. And reserve your copy of my book, "The Case for Pluto," which is coming out this month.