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Frans de Waal on Politics, Fairness, and Human Nature

Posted: 07/14/11 06:05 PM ET

"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.

For the past 20 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. 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 other others have in the human past.

Eric Michael 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?

Frans 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: 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.

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.

To read the full interview with Frans de Waal visit The Primate Diaries at Scientific American.


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