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Thursday, August 25, 2005
Talking Primates with Dr. Frans de Waal

Dr. Frans de WaalWe were recently lucky enough to conduct an interview with world-renowned primatologist Dr. Frans de Waal, author of such books as Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes, Peacemaking Among Primates and Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape.

His new book, Our Inner Ape, looks at human behavior through the eyes of a primatologist, using the behavior of chimps and bonobos as metaphors for how we act. Is there both a chimpanzee and bonobo inside us?

De Waal will be speaking here at the 92nd Street Y on the evening of Monday, October 10, in what promises to be an engaging and candid lecture. Tickets are going fast.

After the jump, Dr. de Waal on apes who rescue injured birds, capuchin monkeys who strike when offered unfair pay, the sex lives of bonobos and why humans are “the most bipolar ape.”

Our Inner Ape examines stereotypes of “animalistic” and “humane” behavior among people, and compares those stereotypes to similar behavior seen among chimpanzees and bonobos. What do you think is the most important lesson that the behavior of our fellow primates holds for us?

While my adoptive country is in a tizzy about Intelligent Design, I see one glaring design flaw in our species. An obviously aggressive primate has been equipped with a brain large enough to develop the ghastliest weapons. We are related to chimpanzees, who no doubt would use these weapons if they had them. They are violent and territorial, like we are. But we’re equally close to bonobos, the make-love-not-war cousins of the chimpanzee, which are excellent at resolving tensions and far more peaceful.

The main message from my book is that we should look at both of these close relatives, and consider that human nature is not all bad, nasty and selfish. It includes lots of positive tendencies. We are endowed with ways to hold aggression in check and to empathize, even with [our] enemies. These tendencies, too, are part of our evolutionary background.

You are originally from the Netherlands, where you studied the chimpanzees of your first book, Chimpanzee Politics, before moving to the United States in 1981. Did the experience of migrating from one culture to another have any influence on your observation of culture among apes?

The main effect of my cultural background is that I believe in tolerance and consensus-building, much more so than Americans, who have an extremely individualistic culture. This is reflected in my work. I like to think that this is not because I project my values onto the animals I study, but rather that I look at them in a different light. I am interested in conflict resolution, a topic that [has been] largely ignored by those who [have grown up] in cultures with a thoroughly competitive spirit. As a result, I discovered reconciliation behavior in chimpanzees (they kiss and embrace after fights)—a behavior that is now well-established in over twenty-five primate species as well as in non-primates, such as dolphins and hyenas. Many scientists are working on this topic now. This discovery has also led to studies of peacemaking among human children, but curiously our knowledge of human peacemaking lags behind current knowledge about animals.

In an article for Discover, you wrote about the concept of “anthropodenial”—your term for the idea that people’s humorous fascination with monkeys and apes is due mainly to our uncomfortable resemblance to them.

At the same time, there has recently been a stream of high-profile stories concerning humanlike behavior among apes and monkeys in the press. The New York Times Magazine alone has run two of them—an article on capuchin monkeys understanding the rudiments of money, and another on retirement sanctuaries for chimpanzees. Do you feel there are other factors at play behind this fascination as well?

The term “anthropodenial” is the counterpart of anthropomorphism. One often hears that anthropomorphism is bad, to be avoided, as it brings animals closer to us than they really are. I have argued that the opposite position is equally dangerous. That is, by using a separate language for humans and animals, we keep animals at a distance and deny the continuity, even though in fact we are animals and are genetically extremely close to the apes. From an evolutionary perspective, we should look for explanations of behavior that apply to both humans and animals, rather than for different ones.

For example, if chimpanzee males build coalitions to overthrow their leader, and if afterwards the coalition partners haggle over who gets privileges that they have collectively obtained, I see politics at work, and I certainly don’t mind calling it “politics.” By calling it something neutral (let’s say, “dominance strategies") out of fear of being anthropomorphic, we would actually lose something. We would be suppressing the possibility that human and chimpanzee politics are similar and derive from our ancestors’ politics. We would be in anthropodenial.

Your book Good Natured examines the possibility of moral and ethical codes among animals and comes to the conclusion that “humane” behavior is not limited to humans, but rather is a result of evolution that can be observed among many different animals. What was the most convincing evidence you found of ethical behavior among the animal kingdom?

I was interested in what David Hume called the “moral sentiments,” such as a tendency to help others, to avoid hurting others, to reciprocate, and so on. Empathy is a long-standing interest of mine. Let me give one anecdote, which I also give in Our Inner Ape, about a bonobo named Kuni: “One day, Kuni captured a starling. Out of fear that she might molest the stunned bird, which appeared undamaged, the keeper urged the ape to let it go. [...] Kuni picked up the starling with one hand and climbed to the highest point of the highest tree, where she wrapped her legs around the trunk so that she had both hands free to hold the bird. She then carefully unfolded its wings and spread them wide open, one wing in each hand, before throwing the bird as hard as she could towards the barrier of the enclosure. Unfortunately, it fell short and landed onto the bank of the moat, where Kuni guarded it for a long time against a curious juvenile.”

Obviously, what Kuni did would have been totally inappropriate towards a member of her own species. Having seen birds in flight many times, she seemed to have a notion of what would be good for a bird.

Bonobos were not even discovered until 1929 and you were a pioneer in studying them and putting their behavior in the public spotlight. There is a stereotype in the media of bonobos being obsessed with sex, and you even wrote that “The art of sexual reconciliation may well have reached its evolutionary peak in the bonobo.” How accurate is the popular stereotype of the bonobo?

The media are more obsessed with sex than the bonobos are. Bonobos are very casual about it.

But it is true that I am partially responsible for the obsession with bonobo sex. Arriving in this incredibly prudish country, I found that almost no one dared to talk about it. So, I went ahead and wrote several pieces, and later also a book, with details about bonobo sexual behavior without fig leaves and without the sort of euphemisms that Americans prefer (some of my colleagues would say that bonobos are “very affectionate” [when] referring to behavior that in the cinema would clearly be classified as X-rated).

So, this is another cultural difference. But let’s not get the impression that all bonobos care about is sex. They use sex to make friends, to resolve conflicts, to say hello—it’s really used for social contact the way we shake hands.

Your writings have expounded on what you call the “Rousseauian tendencies of bonobos” and the “Machiavellian tendencies of male chimpanzees.” Those descriptions tie in to the differing observations you’ve made on conflict resolution and internal politics among groups of each species. Did you ever observe alternate means of conflict resolution on a significant scale or, by and large, did chimpanzees stick to violence and scheming and bonobos stick to copulation and eating?

I call the human species the most bipolar ape, meaning that we go beyond chimps in our violence, which is systematic and often results in thousands of dead, and we go beyond the bonobo in our empathy and love for others, so that human altruism is truly remarkable. However, both bonobos and chimpanzees also know these inner contradictions. They, too, are bipolar. Chimpanzees have the capacity to make peace and share food with each other, and bonobos can be quite nasty to each other.

You pioneered the study of animal conflict resolution while observing apes. What most reminded you of human behavior while watching apes engage in what you call “peacemaking”?

The hesitation, the inner conflict. Two individuals may have had an enormous fight, and you can see that they want to get together because they turn around to each other, they make friendly gestures from a distance, but when push comes to shove, and one of them tries to embrace the other, the whole thing flames up again, and they are screaming and yelling again. Then it may take another hour before they finally get together.

We have seen third-party mediation in such cases, for example when an old female brings two males together who can’t seem to reconcile on their own.

In 2003, you conducted an experiment with capuchin monkeys where you found that monkeys reject unequal pay. The capuchin monkeys involved were given unequal rewards for performing simple tasks and they would then refuse to perform the tasks, holding out for higher pay. Do you think this proves an inherent “sense of fairness” common to all primates?

It is important to distinguish two levels of fairness. One is egocentric. You often see it in young children, which is why no parent will ever dare to come home from a trip with a nice present for one child and nothing for [his or her] brother or sister. This sense of fairness is preoccupied with getting less than someone else: It is resentment at being short-changed. This is what we demonstrated in our monkeys. They refused rewards if their friends got better ones. They were happy to accept a piece of cucumber under almost all circumstances, but if others got a better deal—a grape—those who got cucumber threw the food back at us!

The second, higher level of fairness is if one worries about fairness for the whole society. Are we worried about the income distribution, and are we worried even if we get more than someone else? This higher sense of fairness has not been demonstrated in monkeys. But then, I must say that American CEOs seem equally deficient in this regard given how unashamedly they accept pay packages hundreds of times higher than those of their workers. The gap between rich and poor is getting wider by the day, and often justified by saying that it is human nature to compete and take whatever you can get. But I argue in Our Inner Ape that monitoring the division of rewards is an ancient primate tendency, related to cooperation, and that a sense of fairness is as much part of human nature as is our obvious competitivity.

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