Circuits of Feeling in The Age of Empathy

This is a guest post by Carolyn Pedwell, Senior Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at Newcastle University and AHRC Visiting Scholar at The Centre for the History of Emotions, Queen Mary, University of London.

With the rise of the ‘science of empathy’ in the wake of the ‘discovery’ of mirror neurons, we have seen a veritable return to biology, ethology, neuroscience, genetics and various evolutionary theories to explain not only human circuits of feeling, but also the emotional politics of contemporary societies internationally.  The final chapter of my forthcoming book, Affective Relations: The Transnational Politics of Empathy (Palgrave, 2014), grapples with the implications of the multiple layers of translation involved in politicising the science of empathy.

I am particularly interested in what happens in the translation of scholarly scientific research on empathy into the language of popular science.

Within popular science literatures about empathy, it is clear that a particular view of ‘the biological’ is mobilised to argue for an authoritative explanation of empathy’s autonomic workings and for the restoration of ‘science’ as the preferred epistemological framework for understanding the nature of both individual behaviour and the wider moral and ethical workings of societies.

In his exploration of empathy’s evolutionary roots in The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, for example, the leading primatologist Frans de Waal argues that ‘biology constitutes our greatest hope’ (2010: 45) for building a more equitable and just society ‘based on a more generous and accurate view of human nature’ (back cover). ‘Being in tune with others, coordinating activities and caring for those in need’, he notes, are all evolutionary traits linked to empathy shared by humans and many other species that have long ‘produced the glue that holds communities together’ (45).

It is in harnessing our innate capacity for empathy, de Waal suggests, that we might welcome a ‘new epoch that stresses cooperation and social responsibility’ over selfishness and ‘greed’ (ix).  Importantly, from his perspective, this means accepting our neurobiologically-determined fate and avoiding over-investment in, as he puts it, ‘the whims of politics, culture and religion’ as resources for engendering ‘the humaneness of our society’.  Indeed, as de Waal insists, ‘[i]deologies come and go, but human nature is here to stay’ (45).

Similarly, examining neuroscientific advances in understanding empathy in Mirroring People, neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni figures the ‘discovery’ of mirror neurons as parallel to the DNA revolution in its scientific and social significance.1  For Iacoboni, in enabling embodied simulation, mirror neurons ‘are the foundations of empathy and possibility of morality, a morality that is deeply rooted in our biology’ (2008: 4-5).  The crucial links between biology and morality that neuroscience illuminates, he argues citing President Obama, attest to the importance of ‘restor[ing] science to it’s rightful place’ in society (Obama, 2009 cited in Iacoboni, 2008: 273).  As these examples attest, the translation of scholarly scientific research on empathy into the language of popular science often involves establishing analogical links between the biological workings of the individual organism and the health of the body politic.

Frans de Waal

Drawing on de Waal’s The Age of Empathy, I want to think more carefully, and critically, about some of the potential political implications of such analogies.  In his book, de Waal, who is Professor of primate behaviour in the Psychology Department at Emory University, in Atlanta, figures empathy as an automated response, developed through natural selection, which enables a range of animals to map the bodies of others, to become in tune with their emotional states and able to feel ‘distress at their distress and pleasure at their pleasure’ (2010: 43).  From de Waal’s perspective, although ‘biology is usually called upon to justify a society based on selfish principles’ (ix), ‘a truly Darwinian perspective’ should lead us to ‘expect a “social motive” in group-living animals, one that makes them strive for a well-functioning whole’ (36).  He therefore concludes that empathy – our inborn ‘capacity to connect to and understand others and make their situation our own’ – ‘can only be to any society’s advantage’ (225).

In a mode characteristic of its popular science genre, The Age of Empathy upholds the absolute objectivity of its scientific claims, which are presented as untouched by ideology.  And yet, de Waal’s observations regarding the evolutionary underpinnings of empathy underscored by, and employed to promote, a distinct politico-economic standpoint.  That is, I want to argue, a centrist neoliberal ideology which espouses broad ideals of social justice understood to be congruent with, and enabled by, individuals competing in a merit-based, market society.

From de Waal’s perspective, harnessing the potential of our innate capacity for empathy means thinking about ‘the common good’, which he associates with the key question of ‘how to combine a thriving economy with a humane society’ (3).  While, as a Dutch immigrant to the US, he admires America’s ‘merit-based society’, as ‘truly liberating for those who up to the challenge’, he nevertheless remains ‘perplexed by the wide-spread hatred of taxes and government’ (29) evident in the US, and wonders how this trend can ever be reconciled with, what he refers to as, ‘good old Christian values, such as care for the sick and poor’ (5).  de Waal’s strongest censure, however, is reserved for Europeans and their misplaced sense of ‘entitlement’, characterised by their over-reliance on the state:

When I see twenty-year-olds march in the streets of Paris to claim job protection or older people to preserve retirement at fifty-five, I feel myself all of a sudden siding with American conservatives, who detest entitlement.  The state is not a teat from which one can squeeze milk any time of day, yet that’s how many Europeans look at it (29).

As such, de Waal’s ‘middle of the Atlantic’ political philosophy (29) is one that recognises broad ideals of co-operation and social justice so long as they do not undermine fundamental neoliberal principles of free market economic competition and individual responsibility.

de Waal’s political truths are, of course, presented as congruent with his biological observations.  Indeed, the kind of embodied behaviours de Waal refers to as ‘empathy’ have less to do with sympathy, kindness, or fairness than they do with ‘“enlightened” self-interest’ which, he argues, ‘makes us work toward the kind of society that serves our own best interests’ (36-7).   Furthermore, just as empathy is ‘a human universal’, The Age of Empathy claims, ‘so is our tendency to form social hierarchies’ (209).  We are, at our biological core, ‘incentive-driven animals, focused on status, territory and food security’ (5).  And given de Waal’s ultimate faith in the ideal of a ‘merit-based society’, the maintenance of social hierarchies, it appears, is not only ‘natural’ but also, in some senses, desirable: ‘Is it fair’, he asks, ‘for two people to earn the same if their efforts, initiatives, creativity and talents differ?  Doesn’t a harder worker deserve to make more?  (196-7).

From this perspective, it could be argued that de Waal’s evolutionarily-rooted ‘empathy’ is one that functions precisely to maintain capitalist relations of power (though relations ideally less ‘cut-throat’ than found in the current world system).  In a telling political anecdote, for example, de Waal recounts his research team’s amusement after receiving an angry email branding them as ‘communists’:

The funny thing is that the impression we have of our monkeys is the exact opposite.  We look at them as little capitalists with prehensile tails, who pay for one another’s labor, engage in tit for tat, understand the value of money and feel offended by unequal treatment.  They seem to know the price of everything (195-6).

Elsewhere in the book he makes clear his disdain for Marxism, which he argues ‘floundered’ (as did, in his view, the US feminist movement) ‘on the illusion of a culturally engineered human’, the idea that human beings were ‘blank-slates’ who could be conditioned to ‘build a wonderfully cooperative society’ (202).  Indeed, ‘if any good has come out of the communist “experiment”’, de Waal argues, it has been a ‘clarification of the limits of solidarity’ (italics mine, 36).  In The Age of Empathy, therefore, empathy is effectively severed from the ideological ‘contamination’ of a feminist politics of care or of a Marxist revolutionary solidarity and is presented as inborn capacity which may be cultivated to foster relations, and to create value, which serve neoliberal capitalism.

Moreover, from de Waal’s description, it is evident if empathy engenders cooperation and care within groups, it may simultaneously reinforce boundaries and antagonisms between groups perceived as ‘different’ (115).  The perceived group similarities and differences likely to promote or thwart empathy are, in his view, explicitly gendered, racialised and culture-specific:

We have a hard time identifying with people whom we see as different or belonging to another group.  We find it easier to identify with those like us – with the same cultural background, ethnic features, age, gender, job, and so on – and even more so with those closest to us, such as spouses, children and friends.  Identification is such a basic precondition for empathy that even mice show pain contagion only with their cage mates (80).

From this perspective, it is not clear at all why amplifying the kind of empathy de Waal outlines would help to engender a ‘more just society’ (ix); indeed, on the basis of his description, such relations of feeling seem more likely to exacerbate social and geo-political divisions and grievances than to ameliorate them.  If empathy frequently works to solidify or amplify perceived group differences and antagonisms, then why does de Waal claim that ‘it can only be to any society’s advantage’ (225)?

One answer is to this question is that, framing empathy as an (almost magical) affective solution to complex social, political and economic problems sells books – the catch line ‘greed is out empathy is in’ is a good marketing ploy, even if it glosses what, for de Waal, is a much more disturbing evolutionary story.  In this sense, we might say that The Age of Empathy participates in what Nikolas Rose refers to as the ‘translational imperative’ (2012: 4): ‘the obligation on researchers in biology and biomedicine to make promises’ about the utility of their work ‘on the fly, the worm, the mouse or the macaque’ to a host of external stakeholders including funders, university press offices, publishers, and media.

The other answer, I would argue, is that the optimum global society de Waal envisions is one that would keep many existing social, economic and political hierarchies intact.  While he would prefer that healthcare be extended beyond its current limits in the US, that capitalism would be somewhat more humane and less open to abuses by multi-nationals such as Enron, and that endemic violence between neighbouring ethnic groups in many parts of the world be ceased, de Waal’s overarching political vision is one that invests in both neoliberalism and American exceptionalism.

Without empathy’s aggressive underside, he claims, productivity would plummet and ‘the world might into one giant hippie fest of flower power and free love’ (203).  Without ‘something of the brutal, domineering chimpanzee’, he asks, how ‘would we conquer new frontiers and defend our borders’? (italics mine, 203).  Importantly, de Waal’s ‘we’ in this book is very much a Western ‘we’ – and indeed often a masculine ‘we’ – and his centre-right politics slide quickly at certain points into a neoimperial register.

Thus, despite its uplifting affective rhetoric of social transformation, The Age of Empathy is a book that seeks largely to maintain the social and political status quo rather than to question it or imagine substantive alternatives.  As in other popular scientific accounts of empathy, and indeed in many more scholarly discourses emerging from the life sciences, empathy is understood by de Waal as an affective process which functions to maintain organic regulation, equilibrium and stasis.  When this biological vision of homeostasis as necessary to survival is translated in a way that moves from the individual organism to the social body, it results in a political vision that seeks to keep dominant social, economic and geo-political structures and systems in place.

The argument my book makes, however, is that this is not the only possible or plausible translation of ‘the science of empathy’; there are other ways of making the science of empathy speak to its politics and indeed for politics to speak to empathy.  This is not, of course, to suggest that there is an originary ‘science of empathy’ that is objective or neutral and which can simply be applied to support different political objectives or visions – rather, like all science, ethological and neurological research about empathy is political and imbricated with power, culture and translation from the beginning.  The project of the longer chapter from which the above discussion is drawn is to explore some of the different points within these processes of affective translation that we might intervene, the particular conjunctures at which we might read against the grain and translate differently – keeping in mind that translation itself is always a material and productive practice…


de Waal, F. (2010) The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for Kinder Society (Toronto: McClleland and Stewart Ltd).
Gallese, V. (2009) ‘Mirror Neurons, Embodied Simulation and the Neural Basis of Social Identification’, Psychoanalytic Dialogues: The International Journal of Relational Perspectives,  19(5): 519-536.

Gallese, V., Fadiga, L., Fogassi, L., and Rizzolatti, G. (1996) ‘Action Recognition in the Premotor Cortex’, Brain, 119(2): 593-609.

Iacoboni, M. (2009) Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect to Others (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux).

Pellegrono G. di, Fadiga L., Fogassi, L., Gallese, V. and Rizzolatt, G. (1992) ‘Understanding Motor Events: A Neurophysiological Study’, Experimental Brain Research, 91: 176-80.

Rose, N. (2012) ‘The Human Sciences in a Biological Age,’ Institute for Culture and Society Occasional Paper Series, 3(1): 1-24).