In a fitting metaphor, the most recent experiment with social darwinism resulted in mass extinction. Former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling claimed he was inspired by Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene when he implemented a system known as “rank and yank” that sought to apply nature’s lessons to the energy industry. Skilling had all employees in the company ranked every six months. Then he offered lavish bonuses to the top 5 percent while the bottom 15 percent were relocated or fired. This system of ruthless competition advanced just the type of personalities that one would expect: crazy people. As one Enron employee put it, “If I’m going to my boss’s office to talk about compensation, and if I step on some guy’s throat and that doubles it, then I’ll stomp on that guy’s throat.” However, what was perhaps most disturbing is that according to Time magazine, 20 percent of US companies were following the same business model at the time of Enron’s collapse. Enron’s self-destruction was only the first in a nationwide trend. But what, if anything, does this say about nature?
In his latest book, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, primatologist Frans de Waal argues that social darwinists like Skilling have learned the wrong lessons about the natural world. The nasty, brutish existence dominated by “savage competition, ruthless exploitation, and deceit” that Dawkins describes is far from the norm for animals that live in social groups. They thrive because of the cooperation, conciliation, and, above all, the empathy that they display towards fellow members. The support and protection they receive from living in a group more than compensates for any selfish advantage they might have achieved on their own. In other words, the “selfish gene” has discovered that the most successful approach is to behave unselfishly. De Waal thus argues that the age of empathy is far older than our own species and that we must keep this in mind as we try to apply these lessons ourselves.