BOOKFORUM Reviews THE AGE OF EMPATHY:
NATURE’S LESSONS FOR A KINDER SOCIETY
By Frans De Waal
As the men with the knives dragged the thieves, the crowd jostled for a better view. Minutes later, four young men lay bleeding, each without his right hand and left leg. Some of the onlookers collapsed in fear. Others cheered. This was in June, in Somalia, as reported in the New York Times.
No surprise there, many would say—nothing but one more dismal demonstration of humankind’s worst impulses. “Man is a wolf to man,” Thomas Hobbes declared three centuries ago, and the sentiment was old then. But in his remarkable new book, The Age of Empathy, Frans de Waal contends that Hobbes managed to malign both animals and human beings in the same breath.
Humans are social animals, de Waal observes, and natural selection has shaped us to cooperate, share, and empathize as well as to compete, fight, and maim. The same holds for chimps and gorillas—and wolves. “Don’t believe anyone who says that since nature is based on a struggle for life, we need to live like this as well,” writes de Waal. “Many animals survive not by eliminating each other or keeping everything for themselves, but by cooperating and sharing.”
De Waal has two big goals in his compact book. One is to counter the argument that “every man for himself” is a law of nature. Economists and political thinkers, proclaiming themselves the spokesmen for clear-eyed realism, long ago took a horrified look at the natural world and declared that it is a jungle out there. Competition is ruthless and perpetual, and animals are gladiators with claws and fangs.
Read the full review:
THE AGE OF EMPATHY:
NATURE’S LESSONS FOR A KINDER SOCIETY
Francis De Waal.
Hardback: Harmony, 2009.
Pre-order: [ Amazon ]
BELIEVER MAGAZINE Interviews
Rebecca Solnit, author of
A PARADISE BUILT IN HELL
(Reviewing coming soon in the ERB)http://www.believermag.com/issues/200909/?read=interview_solnitTHE BELIEVER: I’ve seen you referred to as an art historian, a landscape writer, and an art critic, if not more. How do you consider your own work and writer’s identity?
REBECCA SOLNIT: In Wanderlust, I wrote, “This history of walking is an amateur history, just as walking is an amateur act. To use a walking metaphor, it trespasses through everybody else’s field—through anatomy, anthropology, architecture, gardening, geography, political and cultural history, literature, sexuality, religious studies—and doesn’t stop in any of them on its long route. For if a field of expertise can be imagined as a real field—a nice rectangular confine carefully tilled and yielding a specific crop—then the subject of walking resembles walking itself in its lack of confines.” I have a very clear sense of what I am here to do and what its internal coherence is, but it doesn’t fit into the way that ideas and continuities are chopped up into fields or labeled. Sometimes I say I’m an essayist, because that’s an elegant, historically grounded—if sometimes trivialized—mode of literature, while nonfiction is just a term for the leftovers when fiction is considered to be paramount, and creative nonfiction is even more abject a term.
BLVR: In what way, or for whom, do you figure these labels matter?
RS: Well, people want to call you something, and saying you’re just a writer is not enough. Not that I’m comparing myself to them, but Orwell wrote memoir, fiction, polemics, beautiful essays, reviews, ruminations, and tirades; Sontag wrote mostly essays, a few at length, some dealing with broader ideas and genres, some dealing with politics and ethics—and then there are her novels. I love best the nonfiction of a lot of people celebrated mostly for their fiction, from Virginia Woolf to Jamaica Kincaid. The best part about the critical training I got in the visual arts is that it was really just about reading things carefully and asking questions about meaning. The subject could be an artwork, but it could also be the history of nuclear physics or national parks or the representation of Native Americans or the perceptual and spatial changes the railroad brought.
Read the full interview:
A PARADISE BUILT IN HELL.
Hardback: Viking, 2009
Buy now: [ Amazon ]