Cleaveland: Empathy is antidote to violence

Cleaveland: Empathy is antidote to violence

March 11th, 2010 in Health

One sad headline follows another: murders at Fort Hood, Texas; faculty shootings at the University of Alabama at Huntsville; a deliberate crash of a private airplane into an office building in Austin, Texas.

Less dramatic but no less deadly outbursts of violence occur frequently across our country, including in our community.

Is violence so much a part of our DNA that we must arm ourselves and retreat into gated bunkers?

Noted biologist Frans de Waal provides an alternative vision in "The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society" (Harmony Books, New York). Professor de Waal directs the Living Links Project at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University. The biological division of primates includes chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans and humans.

Professor de Waal and a worldwide network of colleagues closely study nonhuman primates as they form families and communities. Examples of empathic behavior abound. His book provides fascinating insights into the organization and sustaining of diverse primate communities.

Empathy is derived from a German word, einfuhlung, which means "feeling into." Empathy refers to our ability to understand and to feel the needs of others. We exhibit compassion when we address those needs.

Bonobos are the most empathic of primates, taking pains to avoid conflict. Females of the species work almost by committee to assure peace within the community. Care of young, weak or injured bonobos is the rule.

Because each colony features a dominant or alpha male whose authority is continually challenged, chimpanzees may exhibit violent behavior, especially toward outsiders. Within the colony, weak or aging members will be sheltered and nurtured. Chimps protect their turf but share within it.

Studies at the Atlanta primate center and similar institutes around the world allow scientists to understand the delicate balances between individual and community consciousness. Members of the primate colonies can be studied in ways that human communities cannot. Parallels with our human behaviors can be analyzed. Triggers for violence can be identified along with the supports for gentle behavior.

The studies attest to the progressive development of empathy over the ages. Empathy is a vital glue that holds communities together.

The worldwide response to the earthquake in Haiti is a crowning example of empathy in a worldwide, human community. Barriers of culture, race and language immediately dissolved as images of the catastrophe reached us.

Counterbalancing acts of violence in our community are numerous, vibrant examples of individual and group empathy. Well-organized charitable organizations provide wide-ranging social services for broken families, battered women, illiterate adults, disadvantaged immigrants, poor and homeless families.

New organizations arise each year to tackle new challenges. Religious and secular institutions reach beyond their formal memberships to serve strangers. Volunteers read to children, direct Scout troops, serve as mentors in Boys and Girls Clubs, ring Salvation Army bells and cook meals for the homeless. Last week, students at Orchard Knob Elementary told me of their efforts to raise money for Haitian children. Good acts do not garner sustained publicity. Violence sells. Goodness does not.

Violence presents a huge challenge to a civilized society. If we are to lessen violence, we must search for its causes and ways to reduce its horrific impacts. But we must not let bursts of violent acts cloud our vision of what can be accomplished when we nurture the empathy that resides within our genes.

Professor de Waal states, "I derive great optimism from empathy's evolutionary antiquity. It makes it a robust trait that will develop in virtually every human being so that society can count on it and try to foster and grow it."

Is it foolhardy to envision an epidemic of empathy?

Contact Clif Cleaveland at