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Frans de Waal on the human primate: Make love, not war

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Editor’s Note: This post is the last in a four-part series of essays for Scientific American by primatologist Frans de Waal on human nature, based on his ongoing research. (The first post, on our sense of fairness, can be read here; a second post, on the impact of crowding, is here; and a third post on power and coalitions is here.) De Waal and other researchers appear in a series of Department of Expansion videos focusing on the same topic.

The origin of human aggression and warfare remains hotly debated. Until now, this debate has been dominated by what chimpanzees do and how this compares with our own species. It is little known, however, that we have an exactly equally close primate relative, the bonobo. This species makes Hobbesians very uncomfortable, so they do everything to marginalize it. One anthropologist seriously suggested that we should ignore bonobos, because they are close to extinction, not realizing that by the same token we should also ignore "Lucy," "Ardi" and all those other ancestors that bit the dust. Others treat bonobos as a wonderful afterthought, a great curiosity, but irrelevant to where we come from.

The first study to compare bonobos and chimpanzees was carried out at the Hellabrunn Zoo in Munich. German scientists made a list of differences between both species, including the bonobo’s sensitivity, peacefulness and obvious sex drive. If these differences were already known in the 1950s, one might ask: Why was the bonobo absent from the debates on human aggression, and still is? Well, that study was published in German, and the time that English-speaking scientists read anything other than English is long past. Another reason is cultural: Victorian attitudes prevent most American or British scientists from touching the bonobo’s eroticism. In the 1990s a British camera crew traveled to the remote jungles of Africa to film bonobos only to stop their cameras each time an "embarrassing" scene appeared in the viewfinder. And National Geographic never published the explicit bonobo pictures brought home by one of its photographers (which were subsequently put to good use by this photographer, Frans Lanting, and myself in Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape).

 

 


But far more important is the fact that bonobos fail to fit established notions about human nature. Believe me, if studies had found that they massacre one another, everyone would know about bonobos. Their peacefulness is the real problem. I sometimes try to imagine what would have happened if we’d known the bonobo first and the chimpanzee only later—or not at all. The discussion about human evolution might not revolve as much around violence, warfare and male dominance, but rather around sexuality, empathy, caring and cooperation. What a different intellectual landscape we would occupy!

Bonobos act as if they have never heard of the killer ape theory that remains popular in anthropological circles. Among wild bonobos there’s no deadly warfare, no male dominance, and enormous amounts of sex. They make love, not war. Science had more trouble with them than a 1960s family had with its long-haired, pot-smoking black sheep who wanted to move back in. They turned off the lights, hid under the table and hoped that the uninvited guest would go away.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR 

Frans de Waal, PhD, is a Dutch-American primatologist known for his popular books, such as Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes (1982) and The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society (2009). He teaches at Emory University in Atlanta where he directs the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. He has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Video credit: Department of Expansion






Comments 22 Comments

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  1. 1. Extremophile 4:33 pm 07/23/2010

    Mr. De Vaal may not have noticed the most interesting statement that Jane Goodall has made on Chimps’ agressiveness: It only started after 15 years of observation, near contact with researchers.

    May I add that without scientists giving antibiotics to hunting Chimpanzee families, it is more than unlikely that they would have survived diseases caught from their Colobus monkey prey, as the British Zoologist Charlotte Uhlenbroek has shown in her documentation "Chimpanzee Diary".

    Maybe we should rethink many myths surrounding our own species, especially that we are generally violent and derive from "hunters and gatherers".

    Link to this
  2. 2. John_Toradze 7:19 pm 07/23/2010

    Good article.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Faith in Humanity 2:02 am 07/24/2010

    "Extremophile at 04:33 PM on 07/23/10
    Mr. De Vaal may not have noticed the most interesting statement that Jane Goodall has made on Chimps’ agressiveness: It only started after 15 years of observation, near contact with researchers."

    That’s interesting! – Could you post a quick link to the work where that statement appeared? Has any work be done (or is it possible now to discover) whether the violence was due to the presence/influence of the observers (as it could appear from the statement in this context)?

    Link to this
  4. 4. Extremophile 10:30 am 07/24/2010

    @Faith in Humanity,

    1. I like your nickname very much. I assume, the "hunter and gatherer" myth has created a lot of damage. People who believe that violence is normal, get more likely violent by themselves. But violence is not a natural thing among humans. It is cultural.

    I am thankful to Mr. De Waal to publish his opinion, confirming my assumption.

    2. Here is Jane Goodall’s timeline in Gombé: http://www.janegoodall.org/study-corner-gombe-timeline.

    3. I remember a notice from Jane Goodall (or a statement in an interview?) saying that she fears that by feeding the Chimps, she may at least have contributed to the upcoming violence. But I cannot find the note anymore.

    It sounds at least very logical. Chimps that were fed had spare time to do things they would not have done under normal circumstances, when they had to make their living by themselves.

    4. Try to obtain the BBC series "Chimpanzee Diary". It has three parts, the second shows how Dr. C. Uhlenbroek (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlotte_Uhlenbroek) gave medication to a chimp family infected with a deadly disease, after some individuals had already died. The family had a hunting male and ate Colobus monkeys.

    Have you ever wondered why big predators have litter with five and more offspring, but big vegetarians have only litters of one? One – possibly among other – good reasons may be that as a predator you are much more likely to catch a disease from your diet. Predators need bigger litters to balance out the loss.

    5. I wonder how much interference by biologists on apes and by anthropologists on human tribes has created an image of hunters that we and our Primate relatives never truly were.

    Link to this
  5. 5. wildthing 2:08 pm 07/24/2010

    We seem to have conceptually walled ourselves out of the Bonobo approach to living with our authoriatarian God King’s commandments and the logic of striking down the lawbreakers while justifying wars as having acceptable collateral damage. We seem to thirst for the relief of the easy answers of war as an escape from the restrictions of overly controlled social life but the dominance and submission of war is a perverse sexuality of rape of one culture of another and rape and pillage is a motivating factor whether it is rape of their women or prostituting of them or of their belongings such as oil.
    We cannot stand much longer for the vast waste of resources of our planet that our wars entail withmassive destruction and rebuilding all the time. We are going to have to learn how to live within the means of our planet or be the cause of our own extinction.
    We are going to have to learn how to live without this sexual perversion of war and relese ourselves from the sexual repression that drives it.

    Link to this
  6. 6. wildthing 2:24 pm 07/24/2010

    The model is global interdependence versus tribalism and nationalism. Environmentally this is wasy to see as pollution doesn’t have a boundary regarding our water and air we all share this tiny jewl of life called Earth. War on the other hand is a tribal blood sacrifice or human sacrifice for one part to benefit ove another. In a global system the good of the whole depends on the good of all the cells and the cells benefit
    from the health of the whole.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Daniel35 1:08 am 07/25/2010

    My version is, "Make love, not babies (or fewer babies) and doublely reduce the causes of war".. by reducing hate and crowding.

    Link to this
  8. 8. oldvic 8:07 am 07/26/2010

    I too have noticed that bonobos are usually absent from nature shows. It’s worrying that, when faced with a choice between the 2 staples of popular television (sex and violence), we seem to tilt towards violence as, perhaps, more "acceptable" than sex (!).
    The world would be a far better place if we were to liberate ourselves from all the negative baggage associated to sex. Here’s hoping…

    Link to this
  9. 9. thelawrencetree 3:09 am 07/30/2010

    Frans de Waal has constructed an enormous straw man argument here! Bonobos have not been studied as much as chimpanzees for one overwhelming reason, and that has little to do with Victorian taboos or with a cultural preference for violence over sex. That reason is political – bonobos are very near extinction in the wild, living only in the Congo, a nation that has been torn asunder by war for many years and is near impossible for researchers to reach. This, and this alone, is enough to create the discrepancy in our understanding of chimpanzee and bonobo behavior.

    de Waal vastly underestimates biologists’ past interest in the bonobo. Researchers have had their eye on the third primate for years, and have used preliminary studies of captive bonobo populations to compare primate behaviors. The comparatively extreme sexual behavior of bonobos, as well as their lack of dominance and aggression, is not, in fact, news!

    We do know much more about chimpanzee behavior, but we shouldn’t blame scientists or science, or even society, for having a bias against the bonobo. Rather, we should acknowledge the great opportunity we now face as research in the Congo becomes more feasible, and popular science books on bonobos such as de Waal’s or Vanessa Wood’s memoir The Bonobo Handshake become more prolific.

    And we should also steer clear of categorizing ourselves as ‘more like’ chimpanzees or ‘more like’ bonobos. This is an oversimplification. As we are equally related to both species, I strongly suspect we share equal amounts with each – likely with a few unique traits tossed into the mix! Let’s not forget that we can learn as much from chimps as from bonobos, even if the lessons are very different.

    Link to this
  10. 10. Extremophile 11:35 am 07/30/2010

    @thelawrencetree

    could it be that Frans de Waal’s Victorian and your political argument for the negligence of Bonobo research commence each other?

    Unfortunately, studying captive Chimpanzee and Bonobo behavior teaches us anyway only what their behavior in captivity is.

    It is like studying human behavior in a jail.

    Also: Studying Chimpanzee and Bonobo behavior in the wild with food and antibiotics in place will only teach us their behaviors with food and drugs abundantly available.

    One would normally not study human behavior by watching people who live on social care.

    Many assertions have been made based on these observations. We should be careful not to overestimate their relevance.

    Link to this
  11. 11. Grains of Peace / Graines de Paix (peace education NGO) 10:00 am 08/13/2010

    We strongly agree with several of Frans de Waal’s positions:
    - the first being that “Humans actually love peace more than war”.
    - the second being that “The main incentive for conflict resolution, and that’s where we need to work, is the value of the group and the value of relationships.”

    We would like to add that love is much more than sex, and that peace is much more than the absence of violence.

    What people actually seek is warm, inclusive, caring, mutually-beneficial relationships and/or inner balance. Those that live such relationships and balance have no urge for violence. The same persons deprived of this may react in various ways, one being violence, but it’s by far not the most prevalent of reactions. Even the most violent persons are violent only a fraction of their time frame and can reconnect with their human essence if given a chance.

    And as regards the amount of violence humans can do when being part of a military action, this is attained by the military’s inescapable dehumanization efforts and official permission to do violence lawfully. Otherwise, the vast majority of soldiers would not be able to kill or rape.

    Peace is much more than the absence of violence, but this is rarely thought about. Yet, the absence of violence doesn’t describe a state of peace, but rather a state of nervous intermission between two periods of violence; nor is it a sufficient ingredient for building peace.

    And that’s where Frans de Waal’s second statement – that the incentive for resolving conflict is valuing relationships – takes on all its meaning.

    Link to this
  12. 12. thmsanderson26 2:07 pm 08/28/2010

    This is Thomas Anderson.Excellent site, keep up the good work. I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say Im glad I found your blog. This remarkable primate with the curious name is challenging established views on human evolution. The bonobo, least known of the great apes, is a female-centered, egalitarian species that has been dubbed the "make-love-not-war" primate by specialists. In bonobo society, females form alliances to intimidate males, sexual behavior (in virtually every partner combination) replaces aggression and serves many social functions, and unrelated groups mingle instead of fighting.Thanks
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    This is Thomas Anderson.This is a wonderful opinion. The things mentioned are unanimous and needs to be appreciated by everyone.This remarkable primate with the curious name is challenging established views on human evolution. The bonbon, least known of the great apes, is a female-centered, egalitarian species that has been dubbed the "make-love-not-war" primate by specialists. In bonobo society, females form alliances to intimidate males, sexual behavior (in virtually every partner combination) replaces aggression and serves many social functions, and unrelated groups mingle instead of fighting.Thanks
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  18. 18. Guglielmo Tell 9:04 pm 02/4/2011

    The last comment approaches the truth.
    Studies in Anthropology and Biology are valid, but you will never understand war and aggressions without SOCIAL STUDIES. And more exactly MATHERIALIST ones. Don’t identify matherialism with CONSUMERISM – we’re talking elementary survival here: FOOD, WATER, SHELTER, FAMILY. In the Western Society GREED is pretty much associated with the survival – and this is the Occam razor explanation of the reasons of wars. This is political, biological, anthropoligical, sociological assertion. For more, see my comment to John Horgan’s article "Is speculation in multiverses as inmoral as speculation in subprime mortgages?" (#102 there).

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  19. 19. BuckSkinMan 12:25 pm 03/25/2011

    Interesting that comments on this article are so sparse – even after nearly two years.

    Dr. de Waal sounds like me when I’m fed up with something – he’s protesting and trying to disprove what lessons we’ve learned about the past 50,000 years of human behavior. I don’t think he’s getting much success.

    Normally, I’m completely on the side of Science in any issue. But I think when a scientist ignores such things as bones bearing wound evidence dating back thousands of years, that scientist is not thinking clearly. War and armies were first described in writings going back to at least 3,000 years. No question, it’s safe to conclude that violence was part of humanity much earlier than that.

    I think it’s disingenuous for de Waal to say that humans naturally want safety and security but become violent when: confronted with violence from other humans. Hey – ever hear of necessary self-defense?!

    I also think it’s outright lying to say that "even the most violent" go back to being peaceable "if given the chance." The most violent people – by definition – are living in a frame of reference focused on gaining power over others. It’s a psychological disease, not a genetic proclivity.

    de Waal is good at stating the obvious when it comes to "proving" his point: Bonobo Chimpanzees "have everything" when it comes to resources and overall security against predators. Naturally, they are more peaceable. But other groups of chimps are not so lucky – they are forced by their less-ample and more-threatening environment to use violence. Only prey animals do not respond to these two elements in their environments. Prey animals do not "fight" predators. They run or hide – or they die. Humans are NEVER going to be prey animals, they are the top predators on this planet.

    I give Dr. de Wall an "E" and not for "effort." He fails the test of objectivity and use of comparative evidence – (with abandon).

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  20. 20. stramu 9:50 pm 11/14/2011

    To Mr. Waal. I´m wrinting from Argentina. I admire all your work. I want to know your opinion about empathy between human and horse. Is it possible? Already thank you very much, best regards. Sol

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