03 Dec Small-brained animals, such as sharks, certainly can hurt others, but they do so without the slightest idea of what others may feel… (FRANS DE WAAL)
The possibility that empathy is part of our primate heritage ought to make us happy, but we’re not in the habit of embracing our nature. When people commit genocide, we call them “animals.” But when they give to the poor, we praise them for being “humane.” We like to claim the latter behavior for ourselves. It wasn’t until an ape saved a member of our own species that there was a public awakening to the possibility of nonhuman humaneness. This happened on August 16, 1996, when an eight-year-old female gorilla named Binti Jua helped a three-year-old boy who had fallen eighteen feet into the primate exhibit at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo. Reacting immediately, Binti scooped up the boy and carried him to safety. She sat down on a log in a stream, cradling the boy in her lap, giving him a few gentle back pats before taking him to the waiting zoo staff. This simple act of sympathy, captured on video and shown around the world, touched many hearts, and Binti was hailed as a heroine. It was the first time in U.S. history that an ape figured in the speeches of leading politicians, who held her up as a model of compassion.
That Binti’s behavior caused such surprise among humans says a lot about the way animals are depicted in the media. She really did nothing unusual, or at least nothing an ape wouldn’t do for any juvenile of her own species. While recent nature documentaries focus on ferocious beasts (or the macho men who wrestle them to the ground), I think it’s vital to convey the true breadth and depth of our connection with nature. This book explores the fascinating and frightening parallels between primate behavior and our own, with equal regard for the good, the bad, and the ugly.
We are blessed with two close primate relatives to study, and they are as different as night and day. One is a gruff-looking, ambitious character with anger-management issues. The other is an egalitarian proponent of a free-spirited lifestyle. Everyone has heard of the chimpanzee, known to science since the seventeenth century. Its hierarchical and murderous behavior has inspired the common view of humans as “killer apes.” It’s our biological destiny, some scientists say, to grab power by vanquishing others and to wage war into perpetuity. I have witnessed enough bloodshed among chimpanzees to agree that they have a violent streak But we shouldn’t ignore our other close relative, the bonobo, discovered only last century. Bonobos are a happy-go-lucky bunch with healthy sexual appetites. Peaceful by nature, they belie the notion that ours is a purely bloodthirsty lineage.
It is empathy that allows bonobos to understand each other’s needs and desires and to help achieve them When the two-year-old daughter of a bonobo named Linda whimpered at her mother with pouted lips, it meant that she wanted to nurse. But this infant had been in the San Diego Zoo’s nursery and was returned to the group long after Linda’s milk had dried up. The mother understood, though, and went to the fountain to suck her mouth full of water. She then sat in front of her daughter and puckered her lips so that the infant could drink from them Linda repeated her trip to the fountain three times until her daughter was satisfied.
We adore such behavior—which is itself a case of empathy. But the same capacity to understand others also makes it possible to hurt them deliberately. Both sympathy and cruelty rely on the ability to imagine how one’s own behavior affects others. Small-brained animals, such as sharks, certainly can hurt others, but they do so without the slightest idea of what others may feel. The brains of apes, on the other hand, are one-third the size of ours, making them sufficiently complex for cruelty. Like boys throwing rocks at ducks in a pond, apes sometimes inflict pain for fin In one game, juvenile lab chimpanzees enticed chickens behind a fence with bread crumbs. Each time the gullible chickens approached, the chimps hit them with a stick or poked them with a sharp piece of wire. This Tantalus game, which the chickens were stupid enough to play along with (although we can be sure it was no game to them), was invented by the chimps to fight boredom. They refined it to the point that one ape would be the baiter, another the hit man.
Apes are so like us that they’re known as “anthropoids,” from the Latin for “humanlike.” To have two close relations with strikingly different societies is extraordinarily instructive. The power-hungry and brutal chimp contrasts with the peace-loving and erotic bonobo—a kind of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Our own nature is an uneasy marriage of the two. Our dark side is painfully obvious: An estimated 160 million people in the twentieth century alone lost their lives to war, genocide, and political oppression—all due to the human capacity for brutality. Even more chilling than such incomprehensible numbers are more personal expressions of human cruelty, such as the appalling incident in a small Texas town in 1998 in which three white men offered a forty-nine-year-old black man a ride. Instead of taking him home, they drove him to a deserted spot and beat him, then tied him to their truck and dragged him several miles along an asphalt road, tearing off his head and right ann.
We are capable of such savagery despite, or perhaps precisely because of, our ability to imagine what others feel. On the other hand, when that same ability is combined with a positive attitude, it prompts us to send food to starving people, make valiant efforts to rescue complete strangers (such as during earthquakes and fires), cry when someone tells a sad story, or join a search party when a neighbor’s child is missing. With both cruel and compassionate sides, we stand in the world like a Janus head, our two faces looking in opposite directions. This can confuse us to the point that we sometimes oversimplify who we are. We either claim to be the “crown of creation” or depict ourselves as the only true villains.
Why not accept that we are both? These two aspects of our species correspond to those of our closest living relatives. The chimpanzee demonstrates the violent side of human nature so well that few scientists write about any other side at all. But we are also intensely social creatures who rely on one another and actually need interaction with other people to lead sane and happy lives. Next to death, solitary confinement is our most extreme punishment Our bodies and minds are not designed for lonely lives. We become hopelessly depressed in the absence of human company, and our health deteriorates. In one recent medical study, healthy volunteers exposed to cold and flu viruses got sick more easily if they had fewer friends and family around them
This need for connection is naturally understood by women In mammals, parental care cannot be separated from lactation During the 180 million years of mammalian evolution, females who responded to their offspring’s needs outreproduced those who were cold and distant. Having descended from a long line of mothers who nursed, fed, cleaned, carried, comforted, and defended their yoims, we should not be surprised by gender differences in human empathy. They appear well before socialization The first sign of empathy—crying when another baby cries—is already more typical in girl babies than boy babies. And later in life empathy remains more developed in females than in males. This is not to say that men lack empathy or don’t need to connect with others, but they seek it more from women than from other men A long-term relationship with a woman, such as marriage, is the most effective way for a man to add years to his life. The flip side of this picture is autism—an empathy disorder that keeps us from connecting with others—which is four times more common in males than females.
Our Inner Ape
Frans De Waal