The Primate Diaries

The Primate Diaries

Notes on science, politics, and history from a primate in the human zoo.

Frans de Waal on Political Apes, Science Communication, and Building a Cooperative Society

Portrait of de Waal by Nathaniel Gold

"It's the animal in us," we often hear when we've been bad. But why not when we're good? This is the question that has driven Frans de Waal for the past 30 years. From his pioneering research on alliance formation in Chimpanzee Politics, to reconciliation behavior in Peacemaking Among Primates and Good Natured, to the implications for human life and thought in Primates and Philosophers, de Waal has been seeking to understand the roots of moral behavior in the most political of animals. The theme of his newest book, The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society, is the culmination of his work to date and presents a synthesis of the factors that account for cooperative behavior in the natural world. Many of the case studies he describes seem to defy the notion that nature is selfish or that humans alone are the only moral animal. In one moving example, an elderly chimpanzee female named Peony is incapacitated with arthritis and is unable to reach water. She is cared for by other members of her troop as they dip their own mouths into the stream and bring it back for her so she can drink.

Unlike most of de Waal's books, however, The Age of Empathy offers suggestions about how we can implement some of these moral lessons into our own society. As the Western world has been shaken by unprecedented corruption and greed in the financial sector during the past few years, it is a message that has found a wide audience. This is a topic that the soft-spoken 63-year old Dutch-born primatologist -- who became a United States citizen in 2009 -- seems to have been primed to undertake from birth. Born in 's-Hertogenbosch, Holland three years after the end of World War II, de Waal grew up in a society still reeling from the German terror bombing that devastated so much of his country. However, unlike that other native son, the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch whose triptychs of human cruelty and vice graphically depict the ugly side of human nature, de Waal chose to study not our Fall but what so often causes us to rise in support of others.

For the past twenty years de Waal has lived and worked in Atlanta, Georgia where he operates the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center of Emory University. I first met de Waal in 2007 when he visited Duke University's department of Evolutionary Anthropology where I was working on a PhD in primate behavioral ecology. Shortly after that I interviewed him for SEED magazine ("Survival of the Kindest") about his newly released book. Since so much of my scientific work was inspired by de Waal's research I thought there was no better way to introduce the themes to be explored at The Primate Diaries than to introduce readers to the scientist who was instrumental in my own development.

We spoke earlier this summer about his research with chimpanzees, what science communication means to him, and how we can learn from the natural world to prevent our fledgling society from collapsing as so many others have in the human past.

Two Curious Primates

Two Curious Primates / © Frans de Waal, Used by Permission

Eric Michael Johnson: In the introduction to your first book, Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes, Desmond Morris wrote, "The message of this important book is, in the author's words, 'the roots of politics are older than humanity.' It is a message that pleases me but I suspect it will upset many, including some of our leading political figures." Was Desmond Morris right? Was there resistance to this message?

Frans De Waal: Chimpanzee Politics was published in 1982 and, at the time, I think there was indeed resistance. The book offered a cognitive view of chimpanzees, such as planning, intentions, political power striving, and so forth. It depicted the chimpanzees as deliberate and smart actors and that was not how animals were typically understood at the time. But it turned out that we were more worried than we needed to be.

Johnson: Why was that?

De Waal: The cognitive revolution had just happened and psychologists were ready to move beyond behaviorism and study humans as thinking and feeling beings. I think the people who studied animals were particularly ready for this. So, for example, Don Griffin had written his book on animal awareness a couple of years before. When Chimpanzee Politics was published, primatologists embraced it because it was describing behaviors that they had witnessed first hand. Outside of primatology there was some resistance because people who work with fish or insects, for example, were not thinking in terms of planned strategies and the like. But even in those fields there is now increasing attention to cognition.

Johnson: You stated in a recent Q & A with Freakonomics that "Desmond Morris is the most underrated behavioral biologist of his generation" and you attribute this to his popularization of science. The subtitle to The Primate Diaries is a reference to Morris' book The Human Zoo which had a big impact on me as an undergrad. Why do you think Morris' work is so underrated and what have you learned from his approach to communicating science?

De Waal: Desmond Morris started out as a very serious ethologist, he was a student of Niko Tinbergen, and he wrote some highly regarded technical papers on birds. Then later he started working at the London Zoo and learned to popularize because he had to address a more diverse audience. It was similar for me. I learned to popularize at the Arnhem Zoo in Holland where I addressed a lot of popular audiences. Morris wrote many books before he published The Naked Ape, which is what gave him his fame. His earlier books didn't do very well, but The Naked Ape sold close to ten million copies and was extremely successful. But from that day on he was considered a vulgarizer - not even a popularizer, but a vulgarizer - and people didn't respect him anymore in the sciences. It is very unfortunate because some of the best theories that have been around, such as Robin Dunbar's grooming-gossip hypothesis, come straight out of The Naked Ape. A lot of people owe a great deal to Desmond Morris because he was a very creative thinker and he summarized his insights extremely well.

Johnson: How does a serious researcher avoid that fate if they want to communicate with a wide audience?

De Waal: To avoid that you need to keep writing serious papers. So, instead of switching from science to popularization, you need to do science and popularization. Some people are capable of doing that. A good example is Ed Wilson who did that all his life. He wrote celebrated popular books and influential scientific papers and people respected him for doing both. You need to be respected in your field and contribute scientifically while you do the popularizations.

Johnson: In addition to your many scientific articles and books you also contribute to blogs. My friends Ed Yong who writes Not Exactly Rocket Science and Christopher Ryan at Sex at Dawn have both had the pleasure, as I have myself, of interacting with you through this medium. You also write occasional pieces for The Huffington Post and Three Quarks Daily. Why do you think it's important for prominent scientists to utilize the blogosphere?

De Waal: If you're a passionate scientist it's important to communicate your science to people. I personally don't think that should be left to science writers. I respect a lot of science writers and many of them are very good. But I do feel that the scientists themselves also need to say what they think of their field and what research they find relevant. I also have fun and do it more for amusement sometimes. During the elections, for example, I wrote a piece about Hilary Clinton and alpha female apes. I think a lot of human politics mirrors primate politics and I like to make those connections. But, at the same time, there's a serious undertone in communicating to people that what we do is not necessarily so special, it's not so special that you can't compare it to what other animals are doing.

Johnson: I want to get to this connection with politics a little later. But first I want to talk about the science itself. You have been inspired, as you have said many times, by the great Dutch ethologist Niko Tinbergen who, along with Konrad Lorenz and Karl von Frisch, founded the modern science of animal behavior. What was important about their contributions to the field and how do you see their influence today?

De Waal: I think the early ethologists were very different from the behaviorists in the United States. The behaviorists were basically Pavlovians, they wanted to see how animals can learn under controlled conditions in the lab. They revealed many interesting insights, but it also constrained them because animals were only allowed to show their capacities in a very limited way. Ethologists like Tinbergen and Lorenz were more interested in natural behavior. For example, imprinting was a big topic for Lorenz. This is a learning mechanism but it's a kind of preprogrammed learning where a duckling imprints on the first moving object they see, usually its mother, and learns about its own species by following them. But it's not a very specific mechanism. There are famous images of Lorenz walking with a line of ducklings behind him that had imprinted on him after hatching. That's the sort of learning the ethologists were interested in, not the artificial conditions of the behaviorists.

Nikolaas Tinbergen (left) and Konrad Lorenz (right), 1978 / Wikimedia

I feel that those three founders of ethology, and ethology itself, have been extremely important. If you look at Evolutionary Psychology, or you look at Sociobiology, or you look at many of the techniques that developmental psychologists use (such as videotapes of toddlers playing together) they're using ethological techniques. So ethology is still very much with us even though the term is not used much anymore.

Johnson: Where does Peter Kropotkin fit into this history of animal behavior?

De Waal: Ah, Kropotkin. That's much earlier, of course. Kropotkin was a naturalist, he was also a prince, and an anarchist. He was many things. Kropotkin believed that the roots of solidarity and cooperation could be found in nature. He argued that survival of the fittest could result, not only by competing with others, but also by cooperating with others. He was inspired by his research in Siberia where animals experience very harsh conditions and where cooperating was essential to survival.

In that sense he was very different from Thomas Henry Huxley. Kropotkin loved Darwin but he opposed Huxley because the latter presented a very narrow view of Darwinism, one that is still with us today. The modern day Huxley is Richard Dawkins who is also a combative atheist, like Huxley was, and who portrays nature as a field of combat where the strongest wins and where everything is regulated by self-interest. Huxley couldn't imagine how morality could have evolved, even though Darwin himself wrote extensively on the topic. So Huxley was a much more pessimistic and narrow-minded Darwinist. Kropotkin opposed him for that reason because Kropotkin saw a great deal of cooperation in nature just as Darwin had.

Johnson: There have been several famous studies you've written about that led to the flawed assumption of the "killer-ape" view of human origins. For example, what happened at Monkey Hill?

De Waal: Oh, you mean with Zuckerman?

Johnson: Yes.

De Waal: Solly Zuckerman was an anatomist who, tragically, established a group of hamadryas baboons at the London Zoo in the wrong way and then assumed their murderous behavior was the same in nature. The hamadryas baboon is a harem holder where one male mates with multiple females. Normally you would want to introduce just a few males and a much larger group of females if you were to set up a stable colony. They did exactly the opposite. They put a whole bunch of males together and then introduced just a few females. The males started fighting like crazy over those females in order to build their own harem. It led to a massacre. Zuckerman was confronted with all of these dead monkeys and derived the conclusion that this is how nature was, including human nature.

Johnson: So the key point to take from this is that there was species-typical behavior that he didn't understand and by throwing them altogether it resulted in chaos.

De Waal: Yes, but then he expanded from the chaos to conclude that this was how human and nonhuman primates behaved under natural conditions.

Johnson: Are there any lessons we can learn from Monkey Hill about organizing human societies?

De Waal: Yes, I've argued in my most recent book, The Age of Empathy, that if you want to design a successful human society you need to know what kind of animal we are. Are we a social animal or a selfish animal? Do we respond better when we're solitary or living in a group? Do we like to live at night or in the daytime? You should know as much as you can about the human species if you have a hand in designing human society. Of course, I'm not saying that you can derive moral rules from nature - that's deriving an ought from an is, as the philosophers say - but you do need to know what kind of animals we are if you want to design a stable society.

Johnson: How does the environment affect this? For example, you've written that there are distinct differences between bonobos and chimpanzees despite the fact that they are so close genetically. Bonobos live in a female dominated society even though the males are still somewhat larger. You have suggested, as has the bonobo field researcher Frances White (who was one of my advisers in graduate school) that the environment may hold the answer to why this is.

Bonobos in Democratic Republic of Congo / Courtney Bolton 2009, Flickr

De Waal: It is possible that bonobos live in a richer environment and have more food sources in their forest that are less dispersed than chimpanzees do. They also have access to ground vegetation, which chimpanzees have to compete with gorillas over. As a result, bonobo females can travel together and don't need to disperse like chimpanzee females do. Chimp females largely forage alone and would only be competing with each other if they foraged in a large group since the food patches are small. Because bonobo females can travel together, this gives them power in the sense that they can form coalitions against males. They're very cooperative with each other and that's how they keep the males in check. The males individually are dominant, but as soon as you get two or three females together they dominate the male.

Johnson: Chimpanzees have long been the model for human evolution and have been used to justify the story that Huxley advocated about our violent past. Chimps have been known to form all-male bands that patrol their territory, even attacking and killing males from rival groups. However, bonobos show very different behaviors and have even been observed grooming males from other groups. Would you say that these behaviors are purely genetic or, as Cristophe Boesch and Gottfried Hohmann have suggested, that the environment is key to understanding why chimpanzees and bonobos behave so differently? Could it be a behavioral flexibility that is learned or even cultural in origin?

De Waal: It is true that most chimpanzees and bonobos are very flexible animals who under different circumstances behave differently. We're in the process of documenting that in Africa and you can also see the same thing in zoo groups. But if you look at, say, a group of twenty chimpanzees or twenty bonobos on a large island, and we have that kind of situation today, the bonobos behave very differently than the chimpanzees. Many of these differences are not just environmentally induced because the zoo environments are pretty much identical.

Johnson: You have also written about the evolution of culture. As an American transplanted in Canada I've noticed distinct differences in culture and how people treat one another. Here there seems to be a great deal more trust between people and there's a general sense that we're all in it together. Whereas in most American universities the primary focus is on business or law, in Canada the emphasis is on international relations and diplomacy. I had one academic tell me that diplomacy is Canada's #1 export. After moving from Holland to the United States you must have also confronted similar differences in culture.

De Waal: I always thought the largest export from Canada was comedians.

Johnson: Well, I recently read that it does rank as one of the happiest countries in the world, so maybe there's something to that.

De Waal: But, it's true. I think there are a lot of differences. When I came to this country I was struck by the amount of violence on TV and in the movies. It was a much higher level of violence than I was used to but people seemed very comfortable with it. Then there's the puritanism, this extreme obsession Americans have with sex. There's not less sex in American society than in European society, but people are more obsessed with it. As soon as there's a naked breast on TV half of the U.S. faints apparently and need to write their senators about it.

Frans de Waal Becomes an American, 2009 / © Frans de Waal, Used by Permission

But, on the other hand, people are very helpful and less jealous of your success. Holland is a very small country, an egalitarian country, where if you want to be successful you have to hide your ambition. That's also true for Japan. In the U.S. if you're successful it's appreciated, even rewarded. In that sense they're much more generous than many European countries are. But then if you don't mention what you have done in your life people in the U.S. think you've done nothing. It's a very different way of operating in the two societies.

Johnson: What have you found with chimpanzees in how culture is transmitted? You found some interesting connections with prestige in the transmission of culture.

De Waal: Yes, after demonstrating that chimpanzees transmit habits to each other and imitate one another, Vicky Horner, who works with me, started doing experiments on prestige. The idea was that we would introduce two models into a group of chimpanzees who would demonstrate a certain task and would be rewarded with food. There would be a high status model and a low status model. She found that chimpanzees are much more eager to follow a high status model. It's a bit like the way we follow celebrities or leaders, we follow the example of high status individuals much more readily than low status ones.

Johnson: Today we are faced with what has widely been termed a "culture of corruption." In your latest book you point to the abuses on Wall Street in which financiers have willfully defrauded the public and Washington politicians who operate through a revolving door of political favors and corporate kickbacks. Is there something in this research with our evolutionary relatives that can help us change our political culture? For example, you and your colleague Sarah Brosnan discovered something very interesting in your study with chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys concerning economic behavior.

De Waal: Yes, the first experiment was with capuchin monkeys where we would put two monkeys side by side and we would give them rewards for a very simple task. If you give them the same reward, such as small pieces of cucumber, they're perfectly happy to do this many times in a row. But if you give one of the two monkeys a grape and the second a cucumber then the second monkey gets mad and refuses to perform the task. We have repeated this with chimpanzees where Sarah found that the one who gets more is also affected and refuses the task unless the other one also gets a grape. With this we're getting very close to the sense of fairness.

Johnson: How does this translate to modern human society?

De Waal: I think the sense of fairness in humans is very strongly developed and that's why we react so strongly to all the bonuses received by Wall Street executives. We want to know why they deserve these benefits. The anger we have towards Wall Street is probably a very old primate reaction that relates to cooperation. If you are a cooperative animal you need to watch what you get. If you, or even a whole community, invest in something but then a few individuals receive a much larger return, it's not a good arrangement. If it happens consistently, it's time to look for an arrangement that is more beneficial. That's why we're so sensitive to how rewards are being divided.

De Waal Feeding Ring-tailed Lemurs, New Zealand / © Frans de Waal, Used by Permission

Johnson: You would argue, then, that a sense of fairness and equality is an innate feature of our species. How does that get sidelined? Is it beaten out of people through propaganda?

De Waal: Yes, to some degree that is happening. You justify the inequalities by saying some people are just better and smarter than others and the strong should survive and the poor can die off.

Johnson: That sounds nearly identical to what Herbert Spencer said in the nineteenth century; that the poor were a drag on a nations economy and should die off.

De Waal: Yes, he claimed it would be better if they died because he thought that's what happens in nature. This view came to be called Social Darwinism, though this is really a misnomer because Darwin himself rejected it. I have two problems with that whole viewpoint which is so popular among conservatives in the United States. They claim you need to organize a society based on competition because the strong will advance and the weak, well, that's their problem. They assume that the way natural selection operates is the way that society should be structured. I'm not sure that society should be structured along the lines of natural selection. So that's the first problem.

The second problem is the assumption that nature is purely driven by competitive processes. Darwin himself understood that this was not the case when he wrote that "struggle for existence" needed to be taken in a very broad sense. It may mean that an individual has a better immune system than another and that's why they survived to leave more offspring. Instead of direct combat, which is the terminology that Spencer and Huxley used, it is more about who is smarter, who detects the predator earlier, who has better ears and eyes, etc. All of these things play a role, it is not necessarily combat between individuals. The conservative view of how nature operates and how we need to apply that to society is extremely distorted. It is a very deficient ideology in my opinion.

Johnson: Newt Gingrich, now a Republican candidate for President, passed out your book Chimpanzee Politics to one of his aides. He apparently saw it as a treatise on human nature.

De Waal: Yes, of course Chimpanzee Politics is not about Social Darwinism or about evolutionary processes. It is really about political processes and I can see how Gingrich got carried away by that. Here in Georgia we have two politicians who are very prominent. One is Newt Gingrich and the other is Jimmy Carter. I visited Carter once and it turned out that he had read my book Peacemaking Among Primates. I always felt afterwards that they should have swapped books. Newt Gingrich should have read Peacemaking Among Primates and Jimmy Carter should have read Chimpanzee Politics. They both would have gotten more out of it.

Johnson: Jimmy Carter, of course, has been very active in trying to find a negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians. Is there any research from chimpanzee reconciliation behavior that could be applied towards human conflicts?

De Waal: Well, you are now mentioning the most difficult conflict of our time, which I'm not sure as a primatologist I can solve for you. I can say that studies of reconciliation in primates have demonstrated that if the relationship value increases between two parties they are more willing to make peace. The European community was actually based on that principle. After World War II it was decided that in order to prevent the Germans and the French from having another war it would be better to tie them together into one economic pact so they would invest in each other and have mutual stakes. Until now that has worked to prevent warfare between the two. For Israel and Palestine, we have discovered that these two peoples are actually very similar genetically. They are very much the same people living in the same land. Instead of building a wall between each other, which is what they are doing now, they should have economic ties. If both parties had a stake in the other the chances of them killing each other are going to be reduced.

Johnson: Cooperative trade and consensus based democracy was the norm for 95% of our existence as hunter-gatherers. What do you think is the key lesson we should consider as we attempt to build a global community today?

De Waal: What is happening is that we are having more and more economic ties and that will probably reduce international warfare. International conflict has been reduced over time and most of the wars we see now are between ethnic groups within a country. If you look at national economies today, for example, the American economy, the European economy, the Indians, the Chinese, we're all tied together. If one of them sinks the rest are going to sink with them and if one floats the rest are lifted up. I find that very interesting. Internationally we are now reaching a point where we have an increase of value in the relationships.

Johnson: Given all of the problems that we face today as a species, are you hopeful?

De Waal: I'm hopeful about most of the issues except for the environment. I'm hopeful about the social issues. I think we can handle six billion people, or whatever it's going to be, because of the increasing integration in the world community. But as far as the environment is concerned, I am becoming pessimistic because I do not see anybody stepping up and taking the long view approach. It seems like we're stuck in a tragedy of the commons where everyone is trying to contribute as little as possible to get out of this situation. On issues such as global warming and the deterioration of the environment, I just don't see the steps taken that need to be taken at this point. But if we can solve these problems I think we have a chance.

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

Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Email this Article