Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Empathy: From Bench to Bedside
Edited by Jean Decety
MIT Press

Animal Thinking: Contemporary Issues in Comparative Cognition
Edited by Randolph Menzel and Julia Fischer
MIT Press

  Years of a rigid interpretation of Darwinian evolution tended to suppress study of qualities like altruism, compassion, cooperative behavior and empathy, since they didn’t fit into the model of an every-organism-for-itself struggle for survival and transmission of genes. Empathy was even an aberration, a human concoction of religion and—often enough by implication--silly women. But the evidence for the existence of these qualities were too obvious to ignore forever, and more nuanced interpretations of natural selection helped bring them into respectable scientific study. So much time has been lost however that this research is still just beginning.

The collection of scholarly essays in Empathy: From Bench to Bedside is such a wide-ranging beginning. Though even the term is still ambiguous, editor Jean Decety ventures a working definition: “...the natural capacity to share, understand, and respond with care to the state of others...” Even the word “natural” is a great leap forward. The topics range from the relationship of empathy to evolution and human nature (Allan Young) and its possible evolutionary role (Sharee Light and Carolyn Zahn-Waxler) to empathy and neuroscience (Abigail Marsh, Jamil Zaki & Kevin Ochsner, Daniel Terman), its role in childhood development (Amrisha Vaish & Felix Warneken; Nancy Eisenberg. Snjezana Huerta, Alison Edwards), to its role in social psychology (Stephanie Echols & Joshua Corell, etc.) and medical care (Johanna Shapiro, Charles Figley, Ezequiel Gleichgerrcht & Jean Decety.)

Beginning with C. Daniel Batson on his “empathy-altruism hypothesis,” some articles outline further tests and issues for future research. This volume demonstrates the current complexity in the field, which seems partly intrinsic to empathy itself, but also to an uncertain range of definitions. But the true significance here may simply be that all this research exists and is expressed and documented in one volume.

Evidence of just how “natural” empathy might be is found in the chapter on primates and other mammals by Frans B. M. de Waal, a pioneer of empathy studies in general. His work on primates has been instrumental in bringing these qualities into scientific discussion. Why hadn’t other researchers found such evidence in primates before? Because, de Waal has suggested elsewhere, they weren’t looking for it. Instead their assumptions about evolution and about animals prevented them from seeing it.

Animal Thinking is another topic that would have been laughed out of science not so long ago. As editors Randolf Menzel and Julia Fischer write in their introduction, studies have gone beyond the question of whether animals think at all, or whether they have any effective memory to more nuanced issues, like how animals might plan and decide for the future.

The first section attacks a topic for which there is much evidence: animal navigation, from honeybees (Menzel) to birds (Verner P. Bingham.) Animal communication is another topic, even more fraught with problems of definition. While all possible manifestations of animal thinking bear upon the human, and in particular the issues raised concerning empathy and cooperation, the final section of this book, on “social knowledge,” confronts these issues directly, inevitably involving group as well as individual behavior.

These studies raise questions about scientific disciplines and future research. J.R. Stevens calls for a synthesis of evolutionary and psychological approaches to decision-making issues, but that seems good advice in general. He notes the emergence of cognitive ecology and evolutionary psychology as pertinent fields. While Derek Penn suggests that folk psychology “ruined comparative psychology,” scientific research would do well to pay attention to the knowledge of indigenous peoples accrued over centuries of intimate relationships and interdependent culture-creation with animals.

These essays are the product of the Ernest Strungmann Forum, and each topic section includes a synthesis or summary authored by a number of scholars. Both volumes are sturdy, no-nonsense, durable books with clear type. They should stand up to frequent reference and repeated readings, as well they should.

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