Archive for the ‘Frans de Waal’ Category

Some Thoughts on Primates and Philosophers

July 20, 2010
Frans de Waal

Frans de Waal

Some Thoughts on Primates and Philosophers

Morality is a human concept devoid of cosmic origin.

All of our notions of morality are predicated on the fact that human beings are mortal social organisms living in a world of finite resources. If there were only one immortal and indestructible being living in a land of unlimited resources, and none of her actions or decisions could negatively impact herself or others, she would require no rules. But human beings are not the only animals which require social conventions in order to ensure social cohesion. Thus, the laws and cultures we have developed are a “direct outgrowth of the social instincts that we share with other animals” (6).

Human beings have developed elaborate rules and rituals in order to function as members of a group. This makes sense because “Evolution favors animals that assist each other if by doing so they achieve long-term benefits of greater value than the benefits derived from going it alone and competing with others” (13).

Despite the obvious fact that human beings are hardly the only social organisms, biologists have been extremely stingy about acknowledging the possibility that other species are capable of making conscious moral decisions. Scientists with the temerity to suggest that even the most mentally developed non-humans such as primates, dolphins and elephants might be more than simple automatons are often accused of lacking objectivity due to their alleged sin of anthropomorphizing their subjects.

Enter Frans de Waal, the eloquent and outspoken primatologist who argues that morality is not the sole domain of human beings. He makes a convincing case that the same factors which have allowed human beings to develop ethical thinking exist in the higher primates. De Waal argues that continuity is the norm between evolving species in all manner of development, physical, emotional and moral. Therefore, the burden of proof should rest with those who argue that human beings are radically different from even our closest cousins when it comes to behavior and decision-making: “If we normally do not propose different causes for the same behavior in, say, dogs and wolves, why should we do so for humans and chimpanzees?” he asks (62).

In Primates and Philosophers (some brief essays from de Waal along with commentary from Josiah Ober, Stephen Macedo, Robert Wright, Christine M. Korsgaard, Philip Kitcher and Peter Singer) de Waal blames the “behaviorists” (a group for whom he harbors unconcealed contempt) for the widespread antipathy to biologists who credit animals with anthropomorphic tendencies:

“The behaviorists’ opposition to anthropomorphism probably came about because no sane person would take seriously their claim that internal mental operations in OUR species are a figment of the imagination” (66).

Decades of close observation have convinced de Waal that certain higher primates possess all the prerequisites necessary to act upon ethical precepts. Despite being at odds with a substantial proportion of the scientific community, de Waal has an influential ally in his belief that humans possess “continuity with animals even in the moral domain”—Charles Darwin (14). Unlike many “Darwinists,” Darwin argued that:

Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man (14).

If, as the Apostle Paul wrote, There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, then humans are not the only beings capable of such devotion. Famed primatologist Dame Jane Goodall believes that, on occasion, chimpanzees will deliberately risk their lives to save a member of their species. Although they cannot swim, Goodall has often observed them making

“heroic efforts to save companions from drowning–and [they] were sometimes successful. One adult male lost his life as he tried to rescue a small infant whose incompetent mother had allowed it to fall in the water” (33).

De Waal notes that “it is hard to accept as coincidental that scientists who have watched these animals [he’s including dolphins and elephants along with the certain primates] for any length of time have numerous such stories” to tell (33).

De Waal believes that in addition to possessing altruism, some primates have developed a concept of fairness. In a groundbreaking study capuchin monkeys would eventually reject a treat when another capuchin within view was given a preferable reward for performing the identical task. (See Brosnan and de Waal, 44-49)

It is clear that human beings are not the only creatures on earth which demonstrate highly complex mental states (and perhaps even in some cases, a Theory of Mind, 69-73). For example, de Waal is convinced that chimpanzees in captivity like to have a good laugh by playing practical jokes on their human masters:

Often, when human visitors walk up to the chimpanzees at the Yerkes Field Station, an adult female named Georgia hurries to the spigot to collect a mouthful of water before they arrive. She then casually mingles with the rest of the colony behind the mesh fence of their outdoor compound, and not even the best observer will notice anything unusual about her. If necessary, Georgia will wait ten minutes with closed lips until the visitors come near. Then there will be shrieks, laughs, jumps, and sometimes falls, when she suddenly sprays them. (59)

It is difficult to disagree with de Waal’s conclusion regarding the question of whether or not anthropomorphizing certain animals is a “dangerous” tendency for biologists:

There is a symmetry between anthropomorphism and anthropodenial, and since each has its strengths and weaknesses, there is no simple answer. But from an evolutionary perspective, Georgia’s mischief is most parsimoniously explained in the same way we explain our own behavior–as the result of a complex, and familiar, inner life (67).

by Richard W. Bray

My Top Ten Booklist (In no particular order)

March 23, 2010

Franz De Waal

My Top Ten Booklist (In no particular order)

#1 Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America by Theodora Kroeber

…so far as any record shows or any story relates, no member of the United States Army ever shot a single Yana Indian, whose multiple murder remained a home and civilian and strictly extralegal operation. (62) There’s a line in the song Sun City by Steven Van Zandt reminding us that Apartheid “ain’t that far away.” Episodes in Extermination, the fourth chapter of Ishi, written in a beautifully plain and sober tone, makes our own proximity to the horrors of genocide painfully clear.

#2 Primates and Philosophers by Franz De Waal

Chimpanzees think by feeling, just like we do:

In my own experience, chimpanzees pursue power as relentlessly as some in Washington and keep track of given and received services in a marketplace of exchange. Their feelings may range from gratitude for political support to outrage if one of them violates a social rule. All of this goes far beyond mere fear, pain, and anger: the emotional life of these animals is much closer to ours than once held possible. (76)

#3 War is a Force that Gives us Meaning by Chris Hedges

This indispensable book, which came out when our society was still very sick with war fever, tells us that war

Is peddled by mythmakers–historians, war correspondents, filmmakers, novelists and the state–all of whom endow it with qualities it often does possess: excitement, exoticism, power, chances to rise above our small stations in life, and a bizarre and fantastic universe that has grotesque and dark beauty. It dominates culture, distorts memory, corrupts language, and infects everything around it, even humor, which becomes preoccupied with the grim perversities of smut and death. Fundamental questions about the meaning, or meaninglessness, of our place on the planet are laid bare when we watch those around us sink to the lowest depths. War exposes the capacity for evil that lurks not far below the surface within all of us. And this is why for many war is so hard to discuss once it’s over (3)


#4 United States: Essays 1952-1992 by Gore Vidal

This collection of essays proves that in addition to being a damn fine novelist, Vidal is simply our finest living essayist. From his essay Theodore Roosevelt: An American Sissy:

Give a sissy a gun and he will shoot everything in sight….There is something strangely infantile in this obsession with dice-loaded physical courage when the only courage that matters in political or even “real” life is moral. Although TR was often reckless and always domineering in politics, he never showed much real courage, and despite some trust-busting, he never took on the great ring of corruption that ruled and rules in this republic. But then, he was born part of it. (733)

#5 Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

A much underappreciated masterpiece. An earlier post demonstrated that Erdrich is a master of the simile. Some more examples:

Then the vest plunged down against her, so slick and plush that it was like being rubbed by an enormous tongue. (5)

My mother held out a heavy tin one (spoon) from the drawer and screwed her lips up like a coin purse to kiss me. (12)

On the much traveled, evil Sister Leopolda: Perhaps she was just sent around to test her Sisters’ faith, like a spot checker in a factory.(45)

She thought of everything so hard that her mind felt warped and sodden as a door that swells up in spring. (107)

Dot was a diligent producer of milk, however. Her breasts, like overfilled inner tubes, strained at her nylon blouses. (210)

#6 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

The greatest and most important American novel published during the second half of the twentieth century. So it goes.

#7 The Quiet American by Graham Greene

Here’s Greene on innocence, which, as Arnold Rampersad wryly noted, is a famed American virtue:

Innocence always calls mutely for protection when it would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.(29)

#8 The Collected Poems of W. H Auden

The only artists who have made a comparable impression on my consciousness are Vonnegut, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. And I shall continue to revere Auden until the day when I surrender my smidge of nitrogen to the World Fund. (690) (btw, the collected poems are not the complete poems because Auden left out many with which he later became unsatisfied. A notable omission is September 1, 1939 which was excised because Auden eventually decided that the line We must love one another or die constitutes a false alternative.)

#9 The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

Perhaps foolishly, in the spirit of Ernest Hemingway’s notoriously silly aspiration to knock Mr. Shakespeare on his ass, I would argue that Dickinson is the first, and quite possibly the only, American poet capable of going toe-to-toe with the Bard.

#10 The Complete Poems of Dorothy Parker

I recoil somewhat at the realization that there exists a profound kindred empathy in the deepest recesses of my psyche for this sad, sad, angry, witty woman.


by Richard W. Bray