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A day in the life and in the lab of Frans de Waal
Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Yerkes National
Primate Research Center in Atlanta, has made a career
of finding the similarities between ape and human natures.
By Frederica Saylor
July 8, 2005

ATLANTA -- The power is out and a storm is brewing. Something stirs outside the compound, bringing all 15 members of the chimpanzee colony to attention. It's hard to hear anything above the din of their barking.

Primatologist Frans de Waal observes the animals from his tower office at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta. "There will be a lot of grooming later," he says. Grooming, a soothing behavior, is one of several manifestations of human nature chimps exhibit, he says. It is also their most customary sign of affection. "Today they had a common enemy." Something outside their enclosure had riled them up. "A common enemy unifies -- that's true in humans too."

Observing primates and understanding their behavior and what it may mean for human nature has been the focus of de Waal's work for more than 30 years. Today is no different.

This morning, de Waal makes the rounds of the two chimpanzee compounds housed on the outskirts of Atlanta. The field station is a lush primate oasis hidden amid the city's ever-growing housing developments. From an open-air observation tower, he watches the animals below, pointing out their mannerisms and what they mean.

Veronica, a human-raised chimp, sidles over to the side of the enclosure to catch his eye. He gestures a greeting and she smiles, pleased at having gotten his attention. He explains that she seeks human contact -- and can become jealous if she thinks she's not getting enough.

Two students join him in the tower. Amy Pollick, a graduate student researching manual gestures among chimps and bonobos as a primary form of communication, is having difficulty luring the alpha female of the colony from her pen. Without Ericka, Amy will not be able to conduct her observations today.

"Ericka is being stubborn," de Waal says. He explains they do not force the chimps to perform, so the researchers are at the animals' mercy. "This is a typical management problem because it's volunteer-based."

Like parents discussing how to handle an uncooperative child, he and the two students brainstorm a few ideas to encourage the chimp. His manner is casual, and despite his vast experience, he talks to the students like respected colleagues.

The interaction is indicative of the pace at the station: slow and laid-back. Working with chimpanzees often means watching and waiting for something to happen, says de Waal. His days on site usually consist of observation and discussion with student researchers. After three decades of conducting significant research, de Waal has taken a step back. He now is a guide and sounding board for students interested in primate behavior, placing a premium on working to help them formulate and publish their own research.

Sarah Brosnon, who recently completed her anthropology post-doctoral work at Emory, says de Waal's approach to guiding her research was invaluable. He gave Brosnon direction but allowed her the freedom to work out her own theories and observations.

"He was an excellent graduate advisor," she says. "When we had publications coming out together, and it was my dissertation work, my name was first. He was always looking out for what was right and thought I should get the credit."

De Waal celebrates his students' findings, abets them in the publishing process and encourages them to become better observers -- something he considers integral when studying primate behavior. Countless hours of observation have been the foundation of his career, he says. Unlike experimentalists who only know their subjects in a lab environment, de Waal allows the primates to guide him.

"I watch my animals, and I notice that they do certain things that interest me, and then we either start observing it or we start to experiment on it. So, I'm not starting from scratch," he says.

"There are scientists who will set up an experiment to test if [a certain] capacity exists in chimpanzees. And then sometimes they fail and they conclude, 'No they don't have it.' Or they succeed and they say, 'Yes they do have it,'" he says. "Whereas, my mode of working is usually, as I say, the opposite. I look for things that I see happening and then get interested in them and then start doing things with them. So, I usually don�t end up with something that is not there."

Evolution of a primatologist

An animal lover from the start, de Waal was surrounded by birds, fish, cats and a myriad of other pets as a child.

A pioneer in the study of animal-conflict resolution, he has been director of the Yerkes Center for the last 14 years. He has written and edited several books about primate behavior, including Chimpanzee Politics, his first book, that compares chimpanzee power struggles with human politicians, and Our Inner Ape, which will debut in the fall and highlights human nature more than any of his previous work. Heralded internationally, his research on reconciliation, food-sharing and social reciprocity in primates has been used by businesspeople, politicians, psychologists and scientists worldwide to better understand behavior.

De Waal's initial research, in Holland, focused on birds. Studying chimps was not a planned career move but more of an accident, he says. In the early 1970s, he began working with a professor whose brother, a chimpanzee
expert, owned a zoo in Arnhem. The facility housed the world's largest captive colony. This serendipitous move had a deep impact on de Waal, permanently shifting his focus to primates and their behavior. The events that followed paved the way for his future research.

Reconcilable differences

In the '70s, aggression among primates was a hot topic, with scientists like evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins postulating that humans are not moral by nature. Books by behavioral theorist Conrad Lorenz and The Moral Animal by psychologist Robert Wright argued that primates -- including humans -- are basically killers. If humans are moral at all, the authors said, it is something we devised culturally and with which we struggle. De Waal says that despite the prevalent research of his time, he just didn't buy it.

He attributes some of this skepticism to having been raised Catholic, not Calvinist, the widespread religion in Holland, the followers of which believe people are inherently bad and have to work to be good.

"We're not saying that we're inherently good, but this whole idea of original sin, which is on the line of that whole concept that we are inherently nasty and selfish and bad, was not very strong in me," says de Waal. "What I saw most of the time in my monkeys and also in the chimpanzees -- most of the time they get along fine and they are very nice with each other, very gentle and cooperative."

Breaking from convention, de Waal became interested in reconciliation and conflict resolution among primates, something he says had been scantily researched by family therapists. He noticed that although aggression and fighting within groups existed, the members also had ways of coming together again to repair the damage. This discovery would be one of the most pivotal of his career.

"At some point - this was in the mid '70s -- the chimpanzees had a big fight that I was watching," he says. "Afterwards, I saw two chimpanzees kiss and embrace, and I didn't even realize what was going on until only a couple hours later that I realized that those were the same two who had been in a fight. And that's where it sort of clicked, and I said, 'Oh, that's their reconciliation.' And once I had seen that one time, I saw it every day basically."

He is quick to note the difference between reconciliation and forgiveness, which is becoming a popular research topic.

"Forgiveness is an individual, internal process, so that makes it not very accessible," he explains. "Reconciliation is a process that you can observe -- you can observe the kissing and embracing that the chimpanzees do."

In the late '70s, two older, jealous male chimpanzees killed a leading male in the Arnhem colony. This became a defining moment in de Waal's career. Until that point, he never thought the chimpanzees would take their aggression to that extreme. It was then he also realized that conflict resolution and reconciliation were not superfluous mechanisms but absolutely necessary to keep things under control, he says.

Coming to America

Courted by Robert Goy, a former director of the Wisconsin Regional Primate Research Center, de Waal came to the United States with his wife when he was in his mid-20s. He originally planned to stay for one year. But after two weeks, Goy offered him a permanent position that has kept him in the United States ever since.

During his 10 years in Wisconsin, de Waal split his time studying monkeys at the Madison center and researching apes at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center and the San Diego Zoo, where he launched the bonobo project.

De Waal quickly discovered that bonobos -- another species of ape that, like chimpanzees, shares 98.4 percent of its DNA with humans -- were highly sexual animals, using sex as a means of affection, reconciliation and friendship. He also discovered the difficulty of publicizing this research in his adoptive country.

"Americans are very shy about sex," says de Waal. "So, to speak of the sexy bonobos was something that American researchers didn't do, even though they knew what was going on."

As a result, de Waal teamed up with nature photographer Frans Lanting and looked elsewhere to publish his findings. Geo, a German magazine similar to National Geographic, soon picked up the story of the "sexy bonobos." The Geo piece in hand, de Waal then approached Scientific American, which agreed to run a similar -- though more modestly illustrated -- story. With media assistance, this revealing study was one of the first of its kind to go public.

One of these things is just like the other

Throughout his career, de Waal's research has drawn ever-closer similarities between humans and their nearest primate kin. He says, however, that people often don't realize exactly how alike the two are.

"I think there's sort of two shocks from them when they see these similarities. One is that it lifts the ape up to a level that they never thought it was, and so it sort of improves the image of the apes -- maybe either in a positive or negatives sense, but at least they see the ape as more complex than they thought it was," de Waal says. "But also the opposite: It brings humans a little bit down because it makes it clear that things we consider as very sophisticated, unique to us, are part of our primate heritage."

According to de Waal, it's very hard to find a chimpanzee trait that is not humanlike. For example, instead of grooming, people now make small talk. Or some people may actually seek direct grooming contact by spending a lot of time at a salon or barbershop. And although physical competition is evident among humans, verbal fights have replaced much physical sparring in our culture. Even delayed retaliation or temporary control of a reaction may be observed in our chimpanzee relatives.

Joyce Benenson, a child psychologist, says that the parallels de Waal has drawn help her create a fascinating framework about human nature. She advocates that people who study human behavior and psychology should also study the nonhuman-primate literature.

Two of de Waal's greatest contributions are bringing human and ape similarities to light and showing patterns of aggression and reconciliation, according to Benenson.

"Aggression is a way to regulate social relationships -- it's not bad, it's a part of life. When something is valuable, it's worth the aggression. This has really turned the idea of aggression on its head, but is one of the smartest ideas that's come out in terms of the primate literature," says Benenson.

The ubiquitous observer, de Waal says he is always watching people's behavior too, noticing mannerisms and actions they may not even realize they do. He recalls an incident at a lecture he attended where the speaker and an audience member got into a confrontation. Subsequently, the aggressive audience member offered the speaker a translation device.

"I saw it immediately as a reconciliation," says de Waal. "But I'm not convinced that if you had asked [them] a day later, 'Did you make up?' they would probably say no. I don't think it's a conscious, explicit process that happened, even though I saw that something happened. So, I'm always following that sort of thing, and I'm not sure that everyone is following it the same way that I do."

Our primates, ourselves

Sitting in his tower office, gazing at the chimpanzees he knows intimately, de Waal says he is hopeful about the future of his field. He says he believes primatology will continue to have great impact.

"I would hope to see a blending of what we now call 'evolutionary psychology' with primatology," he says. "Evolutionary psychology is a very new field, which applies evolutionary theories to human psychology, and I think that it has a lot of promise. It has problems, but it is probably the best way to go for psychology, I think. And if they would combine it more with real knowledge of animal behavior, including primate behavior, they might get a sort of broader perspective than they have nowadays."

Frederica Saylor is health editor at Science & Theology News.

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