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The Age of Empathy

Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society

By Frans de Waal
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The Age of Empathy by Frans de Waal

The Age of Empathy (2009) debunks popular theories which suggest that human nature is inherently selfish, cut-throat and prone to violence. Evidence provided by biology, history and science makes clear that cooperation, peace and empathy are qualities that are as natural and innate to us as our less desirable traits.

Key idea 1 of 7

There is a popular but misguided tendency to view human nature as inherently selfish.

The idea that human nature is fundamentally selfish is widespread. Even pop culture propagates this idea: “Greed is good,” proclaims Michael Douglas’s character in the 1987 movie, Wall Street. “Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.”

Ideas like this are popular in both cultural and political theory, and they’ve kept alive the myth that humanity is inherently self-centered.

This notion is also backed up by the theory of Social Darwinism. Introduced by nineteenth-century British political philosopher Herbert Spencer, it offers a “survival of the fittest” outlook on life between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”

Social Darwinism further suggests that it’s counterproductive for those who succeed in life to feel obligated to help, as they can get dragged down by those who are struggling.

This kind of ideology has found its way into the business world as well.

For example, in the early twentieth century, business tycoon John D. Rockefeller, Jr., regarded the expansion of big business at the expense of smaller businesses as “merely the working out of a law of nature.”

These are all misunderstandings of human nature and are especially dangerous when they fuel self-fulfilling prophecies.

We saw this in the notorious case of ENRON, an energy company that believed humanity was driven by two things: fear and greed. This created a horrible corporate environment as well as a brutal system ENRON called Rank and Yank, in which managers ranked employees on a five-point scale and fired anyone who received a five. This system led to 20 percent of the workforce being fired every year.

ENRON’s cold-blooded practices extended beyond employee relations, too. In order to raise the price of energy costs, the company caused artificial blackouts and shortages, showing no concern for the harm that these tactics could cause people in elevators or on respirators.

But this cold-hearted business philosophy eventually backfired, and ENRON collapsed in 2001.

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