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By Rob Kall
(about the author)
Capuchin Monkeys Sharing
The first part of a two part Interview conducted September 11, 2013
Transcript checked by
R.K.: Welcome to the Rob Kall Bottom Up Radio Show WNJc1360 AM out of Washington
Township New Jersey reaching Metro Philly and South Jersey. Sponsored by
Opednews.com. My guest tonight is Frans de Waal, he's a Dutch-American biologist
who has been named among Time Magazine's "100 Most Influential People," He is
the Charles Howard Candler professor of Primate Behavior in the Emory University
psychology department in Atlanta, Georgia, he is the director of the Living
Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, and is the author
of numerous books including Chimpanzee Politics and Our Inner Ape. His latest,
The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates. His
research centers on primate social behavior, including conflict resolution,
cooperation, inequity aversion, and food-sharing. Welcome to the show.
F.W.: I'm happy to be there.
R.K.: You've been working for almost forty years with primates. What is the
number one thing you have learned in working with them?
F.W.: Well, I have always focused on social behavior and I've always been
impressed by how intensely social they are. Of course, when I started primates
were usually depicted like all animals, as competitive and aggressive and only
selfish, and so on. This whole view of nature as a competitive place, a
dog-eat-dog world and the main thing that I've learned is, yes, there is plenty
of competition, there's no denying that, but there's also plenty of cooperation
and actually primates live in groups, in large groups sometimes, for cooperative
reasons. Otherwise they would be living alone, of course.
R.K.: Okay. Now your new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism
Among the Primates, brings in a constant that you have been writing about in the
New York Times, in the scientific journals, this idea of a bottom-up roots, or
approach to morality. Can you talk a bit about that starting with definitions of
top-down versus bottom-up per your ideas?
F.W.: Well, the top-down view of morality is of course the dominant view is that
some people believe morality comes from God and that God told us how to behave
and others, after God's word became less popular during The Enlightenment, the
philosopher's told us, well, maybe it doesn't come from God, it comes from
reasoning and logic. We reason ourselves to moral principles and then we apply
them in society and so that's the top-down view which is extremely popular still
in many people.
But of course the bottom-up view is exactly the opposite. It's that you have
moral tendencies in you and that you're born with them and actually we have
evidence that young children, even one year old children, you can show them a
puppet show with good guys and bad guys and they have already preferences for
one, or the other and so moral judgments actually don't necessarily require a
God, or a philosopher for that matter. My studies are on primate behavior and
many of the tendencies that you see in young children you can also see in other
primates such as the tendency to help others, to be empathic to others, to be
sensitive to fairness, to have a tendency to cooperate with others and to
maintain good relationships.
All of these tendencies are part of our usual moral systems and so all of these
things can be acquired by our species without God and without philosophers and
that's the bottom-up view and that's now also supported by some psychology
experiments, by some neuroscience experiments, and so the bottom-up view is
basically that morality comes from within. That doesn't mean that religion has
no role, or that doesn't mean the philosophers have no role in all of this, but
it means that the tendencies are already there and we can modify them through
religion and so on, but that's only marginal in a way.
R.K.: And you mention in 2010 in a New York Times oped that, Reverend Al
Sharpton opined that "If there is no order to the universe, and therefore some
being, some force that ordered it, then who determines what is right or wrong?
There is nothing immoral if there's nothing in charge." And you have a very
different approach to that. You actually said that you are wary of any one whose
belief system is the only thing standing between them an repulsive behavior.
Could you explain that?
F.W.: If someone says that he, or she is moral because of their beliefs and
that's all there is, well, you say I follow the Ten Commandments, or whatever
you're going to tell me; I am not very happy with that kind of people. They are
only moral because they think that God needs to approve of their actions, or
will disapprove of their actions and that's not really an inherently moral
person. That's a person who is only worried about what God thinks about what he
does and, well, that's an issue that goes back to Dostoevsky where he wrote
about that. Some people they say, if there's no God there is no morality, but
that's a very pessimistic view and in my view, our current religions are only
two, or three thousand years old, for the biologist that's really nothing.
Our species is much older and you're not going to tell me that a hundred
thousand years ago a human society would not have a sense of fairness, or would
not have empathy for the sick and the old and would not have some sort of
cooperative system, or punish those behave badly.
Of course those societies, they had some sort of moral system going already,
long before our religions came a long and so to think that everything started
with our current God, who was invented like two, or three thousand years ago,
that's just silly.
So I think everything started much earlier and that's why I'm interested in
other primates because they share many of the same tendencies. They do punish
aberrant behavior, or deviant behavior, and they have social rules that they
follow and so many of these tendencies can be observed in other species.
I'm not saying that religion is irrelevant, but it's not the source of human
R.K.: Now, you refer to our current religions being two, or three thousand years
old and I know you're a primatologist, not an anthropologist. How far back do
F.W.: I don't think we know that. We know about burial grave-site analysis
indicating that for example, the Neanderthals, they buried their dead so they
probably also had some sort of afterlife understanding and some sort of religion
going. So, who knows? They may be very old, but we really don't know that.
R.K.: Okay. Now, in your writings you also refer not just to primates. You
talked about morals, or the kinds of tendencies, or behaviors that are
associated with morals going back to birds and mice and rats. Could you talk
F.W.: Yeah. I'm very interested in the origins of empathy. Empathy is defined as
that you are sensitive to the emotions of the situation of somebody else and, if
that's your definition of empathy, then of course your average dog has empathy
and every one who has a dog will tell you that, that they are sensitive to your
emotions and they react to them, sometimes negatively, but sometimes also
positively. So the thinking in the field of empathy, which is a growing field,
it's also a human studies, is that it is a mammalian characteristic.
Mammals, they go back two hundred million years and whether you are a female
mouse, or a female elephant you need to react to your young and so the thinking
is that maternal care is actually the original of empathic responses because you
needs to be sensitive to the emotions of others if you want to raise them. And
so there are now, I think, a dozen studies of rodent empathy where literally
they put the word empathy in the title, so they're very convinced of what
they're finding where they study how rats, or mice respond to the emotions of
others and how they sometimes help others who are in a predicament, and so on.
Certainly in species like, let's say elephants, or dogs, or other primates, or
dolphins you find lots of that sensitivity and so the thinking is that all of
that can be found in the mammals and so I don't really focus exclusively on the
primates even though I'm a primatologist. We also do work with elephants which I
think is a very interesting species.
Everyone knows that elephants are intelligent, but no one has really tested them
the way we test primates and so at the moment Josh Plotnik, who is a
collaborator of mine in Thailand, he is testing elephants on all sorts of things
that we test the primates on.
R.K.: Now, you have said that humanity never runs out of claims of what sets it
apart, but it's a rare uniqueness claim that holds up for over a decade. It
sounds like what your work is about is proving that there are very few areas of
F.W.: Yeah. I'm very interested in the continuity, of course. I'm a biologist by
training and even though I teach in the psychology department, and psychologists
like many social scientists, or many philosophers also, they think that there is
a big dividing line between humans and other animals.
That doesn't make any sense to me, but it's a very popular position which
ultimately of course is a religious position and the rest, but it doesn't make
any sense because if you look at the brain of a chimpanzee, at the brain of a
human, there's really nothing in the brain of a human that is new. There is no
part that are not present in a chimpanzee brain, there are no transmitters, no
neuro-connections that are not present in a chimpanzee brain.
So the human brain is bigger, it is about three times bigger than a chimpanzee
brain, and so it is a more powerful computer, so to speak, but it doesn't do
anything substantially different. If humans were so absolutely unique as people
think they are, you would hope to find a part in the human brain that is found
nowhere else, but we haven't found that yet. So for the biologist, it's logical
that genetically we're very close to the chimpanzee and our brains are very
similar and our bodies are very similar so it doesn't make any sense to
postulate a huge difference between the two.
R.K.: Now, you just said that it is elitist thinking that humans are so special
and unique and different than the other animals. Not too long ago I interviewed
Daniel Quinn who wrote the book, Ishmael. Are you familiar with that?
F.W.: I have heard of that book, I don't think I've read it, no,
R.K.: I think you would love it. I strongly recommend it and he basically
introduces us to the idea of how animals think and how they treat each other.
How would you describe ways that you ... that primates could teach us some
things about how we could be better people?
F.W.: Well, I'm not sure that's... that's not necessarily my goal because you
know primates, they do also lots of nasty things to each other. They have the
entire spectrum that we also have. There are people who are awfully nice and
there are people who are awfully nasty.
That same conflict that we see in human society between how you behave under one
circumstance and how you behave under another, we see in other primates and I do
believe that humans have more extreme versions of all of this. So for example,
when humans are violent, we are more violent than any other species. And so we
bomb entire nations, we have genocides; that's at a scale that you're really not
going to find in other primates, but also when we're nice, we're actually nicer
than any other primates.
So for example, we will send money to victims of a tsunami in Japan, or in
Thailand which of course primates would not know how to do that even if they
wanted to, but I don't think they have a desire to do that kind of thing because
they really don't sympathize much with strangers. And so we humans have more
extreme forms on both sides, on both the aggressive side and the altruistic
side, so to speak.
That same conflict that you see in humans that we sometimes can be extremely
nice and that we sometimes can be extremely violent, you're going to find in
other primates. So I'm not sure I would hold them up as the example that we
should follow, but I do think we can learn a lot about ourselves by looking at
R.K.: And what are the biggest misconceptions about the differences between
humans and primates and other animals that you have come to understand?
F.W.: Well, the big misconceptions are that people assume that we are conscious
and animals are not, that we have emotions that animals do not have. I
personally think that socially and emotionally we are very similar to other
primates. There are areas such as related to language and abstraction and
technology where we outshine them, certainly with language.
Language is a very human characteristic, so there are areas where we are
quite different, but that's not in the area of let's say social interactions and
social emotions for example primates love power. The males at least love power.
Very similar, that's why I wrote Chimpanzee Politics, very similar to our
politicians. Of course, you know, they will explain on TV that they are not
seeking power; they are wanting to improve our education system, or feed the
world, or whatever, whatever the reasons they give us, but in the end of course
they are seeking power if they are going to run for office.
And so there's a desire for power. There's a lot of affection and bonding and
care for those you are bonded with and other primates. There are the sexual
preoccupations that they have which humans have of course also, and so all of
these tendencies, the basic tendencies that you have in your life of survival
and social relationships and so on, you're going to find in the other primates.
It's in the areas of language and abstraction that you're going to find the
R.K.: Alright, that brings me to another question. What you've described from
this bottom-up idea of how primates and earlier animals evolved with a lot of
the ideas that now are a part of morals is how they are influenced by different
things. What are the human inventions that affect how bottom-up tendencies are
F.W.: Human inventions, you mean? What do you mean "human inventions?"
R.K.: Yeah. Well, when... acquisition of language. Was that an invention, or was
that an evolutional development?
F.W.: Well, I think humans are bred to learn language and so we know that, for
example, in the first couple of years of life, even sometimes before the baby is
born, recent experiments that show that the fetus picks up sounds already and
including linguistic sounds and so we humans are really born to learn language
and to develop language and so that's an evolved capacity even though learning
is part of it. You have to learn a language to speak it. We are pre-programmed
to learn and if you try to teach, for example, a chimpanzee, or gorilla
language, people have tried that of course, that has been done for many decades,
it's very limited what they learn.
They learn a little bit and they learn certain sounds that they associate with
certain objects and they can learn to press certain keys, or certain symbols to
request an object. So, yes, they can learn to communicate symbolically, but it's
extremely limited compared to what even a two year old, or three year old child
And so we are really a species that evolved to use language and that's our
specialization almost because language then influences everything else we do
because language is not just a way of communicating with somebody else, but we
also use it to organize the world around ourselves and it's a very powerful tool
that we have.
R.K.: Now, you have also written that signing, hand-signing, the primates have
more success with.
F.W.: Yeah, the primates, chimpanzees and Bonobos, they're very good at
gesticulation just like humans and so they...it's actually very interesting with
hand gestures... is that they gesture more with the right hand than the left
hand and the right hand is of course controlled by the left brain and it's in
the left brain where our language centers are. So there's a lot of speculation
that hand gestures and language evolution are connected and that maybe humans,
instead of starting with speech, they may have started with hand gestures first
before they moved to controlling their vocal chords and speaking.
So those are details of the discussion about the evolution of language and apes
are very good at hand gestures. There are not many animals who can do this. And
so they, if you see, for example, young children play with apes which I've seen
in the past, nowadays of course they usually don't mix children and apes
anymore, but there was a time when people did those things and it's just
remarkable how well children get along with apes that they play with because
they understand just in the way that you can send your child to a French school
and before you know it your three, or four year old child will get along with
children there because of the facial expressions and the hand gestures.
They may not understand each other, but they have lots of other ways of
communicating. That's also what happens between children and apes. It's truly
remarkable how well they understand each other.
R.K.: So I am going to conclude then that these moral tendencies, the empathy
and the fairness, even sacrifice, those are behaviors that evolved before
F.W.: Yeah. That's certainly a good point. So for example, fairness- we test it
in our primates and so we do an experiment in which, now all over the internet,
we put two monkeys side by side. We give one of the monkeys for a simple task,
we give them pieces of cucumber and the other monkey, for the same task, we give
them grapes and grapes are far better than cucumber and so we do that kind of
experiment where we then see the one that gets cucumber gets very upset and so
he would not be upset if the other one gets cucumber also.
If they both get the same everything is fine and they will perform the task many
times, but if the other one gets much better food they become very upset and
they start to refuse their cucumber slices. So we do these kinds of tests on
fairness and we have found that that's actually something that can be found in
many species. There's also now recently an experiment on dogs that was done and
so, that's all before language.
So you can have a sense of fairness before you even have language and you can
have empathy before you have language and you can follow rules. The reason the
dog is man's best friend is because it's a species that comes from originally a
society in which rules are applied. Wolves and dogs apply rules to each other
and so they also obey rules that we apply to them. That's one of the things we
like about dogs, actually, is that you can tell them to behave and much of the
time, not all of the time, they will follow the rules that you impose on them.
R.K.: Now, when you talked about the study with the monkeys getting grapes, or
cucumbers and the way the monkeys showed their sense of fairness, you referred
to Occupy Wall Street protestors. Can you talk about that?
F.W.: Well, the Wall Street protest was all about the bonuses of the bankers and
the one percent who gets all the money and we are very sensitive to inequity,
just like those monkeys and that's actually a very important problem in society
is that one of the speculations about human health in this country for example
has to do with inequity.
So there's a scientist, Wilkinson is I believe his name in the U.K., who
analysis all over the world inequity and association with health outcomes, and
he argues that if you have high inequity in a country, meaning that the rich
have more of the resources than anybody else, if you have high inequity you have
poor health outcomes.
And so for example, the U.S. has a health care system that takes up twice as
much money as in most other industrialized nations, but the longevity in the
U.S. is actually shorter than in most other industrialized nations, shorter than
in Japan, shorter than in most countries in Europe. So how come that the U.S.
has poorer health outcomes despite the fact that you put a lot more money?
Well, one of the reasons is of course the inefficiencies of the health care
system, but even the rich in this country, the wealthiest people in this
country, even those they live shorter than the wealthiest people in Europe and
so the reasoning of some of these democracies is that high level of inequity
creates tensions and these tensions translate into tensions in society and that
they translate into stress levels that are higher which is why people live
So inequity has all sorts of consequences. Our monkey experiments that we've
done similar things with chimpanzees and with other species indicate that it's a
very profound and very ancient reaction to react negatively to getting something
less than somebody else. Basically, it has enormous consequences, probably also
health consequences in human society.
R.K.: I have been very interested in billionaires and I've written a number of
articles about calling for an end to billionaires because I have mostly looked
at it from the point of view of indigenous tribal cultures. I believe that, and
I have talked to anthropologists about this, that in an indigenous tribe if
somebody acted like a billionaire, hoarding four hundred times more than anybody
else, or even more, they would be treated as crazy, or they would become
F.W.: Yeah. I think that's probably true
R.K.: How does that apply to primates?
F.W.: Yeah. that's probably true. It's that" certainly primates who share
food like chimpanzees, or Capuchin monkeys, they share food and so they will
protest if they don't get from somebody... so let's say, you have an enormous
amount of food and you are not sharing with anybody, you're keeping that all for
yourself, yeah, there will be a revolt probably at some point.
That will not be accepted, that kind of behavior. You may keep more for yourself
than you give away, that's very well possible, but not sharing at all I think is
a poor strategy in a primate society like that. So, yeah, I think the point that
you make is entirely true.
There are many human societies that are quite egalitarian where certain
individuals may have a little bit more than others, but those differences cannot
be too great because if they become too great then there's going to be negative
consequences. I think that's happening in the U.S., for example you have gated
communities. You know that's not known...I'm from the Netherlands. We don't know
that in the Netherlands. We've never heard of a gated community. Why do you have
gated community is because you have created such big differences in income that
there are people who want to take from you even though that's not allowed. So
you need to live behind fences to protect yourself.
So that's a very third world type of solution to the problem. Certainly from a
European perspective because inequalities are not nearly as great as in Europe
and as a result tensions between the rich and the poor are not nearly as great.
R.K.: How would primates handle another primate that attempted to not share in a
very aggressive way? How would they handle it? What behavior would they
manifest? I know in your video of the study of fairness just in terms of sharing
food, one throws food and others you see them spitting. What could you expect to
see from a primate if another one didn't share?
F.W.: Well, if the reaction is not violent, which it doesn't need to be violent,
because what would happen is that if I collect a lot of the resources and I am
eating and consuming them and not sharing with anybody I will become very
unpopular. So they don't need to be necessarily violent to me, but they will not
cooperate with me.
They will not draw me into their line of cooperation because I am the one who
keeps everything for myself. And so I would just lose opportunities for
cooperation with others and that's enough of a punishment I think and I think
that's also is why in many human egalitarian societies you cannot really hoard
everything for yourself because people will turn away from you. In primate
societies, it's very common in chimpanzees for example, that they share food and
they will be pestering you until you give them food and so they will be throwing
tantrums at your feet and making clear that if you don't share with them they
get very upset. And imagine you have someone who is absolutely incapable of
sharing and keeps everything for themselves, they will become socially isolated
and they will become at some point irrelevant to the community. The community
will just ignore them and not deal with them.
R.K.: And in terms of cooperation, you've done studies that showed that monkeys
not only cooperate to achieve common goals, but they'll even help other monkeys,
or other primates when they're not going to be rewarded themselves. When they're
already fed they'll help another monkey, or whatever get food. Sharing work is
required and you also found that in elephants, right?