Review: ‘Humanity on a Tightrope’

Nov. 5, 2010, 12:33 a.m.

Review: 'Humanity on a Tightrope'
(Courtesy of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.)

Global climate change, pollution, inequality, warfare. The list of today’s plaguing problems goes on and on. When presented with such a huge stinking banquet of the world’s ugliness, most people simply turn their noses away, unable to gather the courage to face the intimidating task of coming up with some plausible solutions. However, “Humanity on a Tightrope: Thoughts on Empathy, Family and Big Changes for a Viable Future” makes a valiant attempt at addressing these formidable world issues from an interesting, but maybe too idealistic, point of view.

“Humanity on a Tightrope,” to be released on Nov. 16, is a rich book that delves into the root of the world’s most pressing problems: the lack of empathy in mankind. The whole book revolves around this central idea of how we human beings as a whole global family should develop more empathy toward each other to ensure a sustainable future.

The authors are familiar faces on campus. Paul Ehrlich is the Bing Professor of Population Studies and a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment, and psychologist Robert Evan Ornstein Ph.D. ‘68 is a former Stanford human biology professor. Together, they present the pressing situation in which the world is in now: bleak and bloody history, tension between religious groups and a general indifference or even strong antagonism toward “them,” people who are not part of “us.”

The book starts with the story implied by the title. Ehrlich and Ornstein depict how audiences usually feel anxious when watching the tightrope performers perform in circuses, because we all have these “mirror neurons” in our brains to empathize with other people, to feel what others are going through.

Thus, as Ehrlich and Ornstein claim, mankind has the potential to have more empathy for each other. But in order to reach this potential, they argue, we will have to cross the immense cultural gaps first. Ehrlich and Ornstein first demonstrate empathy’s path of growth by recounting the history of human evolution before they present a step-by-step process to discuss possible solutions.

Using psychological studies and experiments, Ehrlich and Ornstein make their serious arguments more understandable and engaging to a non-academic audience. Many studies are quite interesting, and when the authors break down their seemingly impossible argument into more comprehensible small parts, the argument starts to make more sense. With this, Ehrlich and Ornstein expose readers to some mind-blowing aspects of cultures in the hidden corners of the world. They are also able to draw creative connections between things with rather obscure relations, such as the Internet’s ability to spread or undermine empathy.

The surprising experimental results indeed succeed in capturing the reader’s attention, but in the end, the book is only partially convincing because the ideal answer presented simply doesn’t match up to the scope of the issue the book is trying to deal with. Even Ehrlich and Ornstein, the authors themselves, freely admit that “we’re discussing what is required to reach sustainability, not what will be easy or even possible.”

There are, then, two ways of interpreting the book. Either you can see the book as pervaded with the sense of hopelessness, since even when the most cheerful human empathy experiment results are illustrated, we are reminded that humans are still so far away from stopping global warming, from maintaining world peace or from addressing extreme wealth inequality. Or, you can view the book as an outline of the best way of living, the happiest way of living, because we might just have been suppressing our natural sense of empathy for others all along in the capitalist society. Maybe, if we do have more empathy for others, we will be happier.

However, the decision is ultimately up to the reader. With a smart pun of humanity teetering on the tightrope just as the tightrope performer, Ehrlich and Ornstein showcase their beliefs in the super-power of empathy – that it can save humanity and save the world we live in.

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