Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Social Neuroscience of Empathy
Jean Decenty & William Ickes, editors
The MIT Press 255 pages

Why We Cooperate
Michael Tomasello with Carol Dweck, Joan Silk, Brian Skyrms & Elizabeth Spelke
Boston Review/Yale University Press 206 pages

Science has its own dogmas. Sometimes the dogma is a powerful prevailing theory with a superstar and institutionally well-placed adherents, or more often a set of biases based on a longstanding theory that determines how science is organized and done.

Lately, the prevailing dogmas of neo-Darwinian evolution that continued the bias towards the "struggle for survival" of individual organisms has been challenged in a number of life sciences. The growing power of neuroscience is beginning to shake things up as well. The outcome so far is an impressive if still fairly primitive movement towards recognizing what we call empathy, altruism and cooperation that have long been observed, though those observations were often ignored or discounted.

The Social Neuroscience of Empathy collects reports on multidisciplinary research with neuroscience heavily in the mix, as these sciences (including various branches of psychology research) to some extent reorganize themselves. These reports generally support the existence of empathy, often through neurological research, for example following the discovery of "mirror" neurons.

Why We Cooperate presents a report by evolutionary anthropologist Michael Tomasello on his research with chimps and human children, and a series of responses by another anthropologist, two psychologists and a professor of logic and philosophy. Tomasello's basic finding is that altruism and the urge to cooperate exist naturally--not just culturally.

Both of these books seem to be part of a movement--a slow or a fast one, depending on your point of view--away from a strictly individualistic (and perhaps baldly genetic) bias towards recognition of the importance and function of the social in survival.

The Social Neuroscience of Empathy is more technical, a bit more densely written though still accessible to the careful reader. However it does appear to be more of an insider challenge, and a resource for scientists and science students. This intent is reflected in the physical book--sturdy binding, slick paper, it's built to last on the office shelf and be passed along through a few generations of students. It is an impressively useful volume, readable in its efficient prose and relatively modest length.

Why We Cooperate is even more accessible to the general reader, and clearly is meant to be. As a book, it is small and handy, about the size of a quality paperback but a sturdy and handsome hardcover. It's the kind of book you want to carry around. The prose within it answers this invitation--from Tomasello's essay to the responses, it's close to conversational, though it's a logical and informed conversation.

Readers will find entering that conversation inviting, or at least this one did. There is some eye-opening research presented in both these volumes, though the limitations of such research are also exposed. Of all the motivations for children cooperating in games, for example, I didn't detect much awareness that they are doing it because it's fun. A game without rules everyone cooperates in maintaining just isn't fun. Lots of animals play. Even scientists. Maybe they could augment their laboratory experiments by playing with children, and later, reading some literature. Lots of science I read in this field seems to be painstakingly and awkwardly coming to conclusions that storytellers came to long ago, and then announcing it timidly, as it is might be received as heresy.

The Social Neuroscience of Empathy will interest students of neuroscience and psychology. It's also one of those landmark books that's apt to become a kind of classic in the field, until (and if) the next steps are taken. Why We Cooperate is for an intelligent but at least somewhat wider readership, as well as those in fields of psychology, evolution and child development. Together they are part of a dogma-slaying new paradigm with far-reaching implications for how humans think about themselves and their roles in the world.

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