Frans de Waal

«In ten years’ time, invasive experimentation on great apes will be a thing of the past»

Primatology professor at the University of Emory (Atlanta)

Frans de Waal

Frans de Waal (Netherlands, 1948) is one of the leading primatologists of all time. He is a world authority on chimpanzee behaviour in captivity, and has contributed greatly to teaching the public about the bonobo. He has an outstanding ability to relate primatological data with issues that concern politicians, social scientists, psychologists and philosophers, and in 2007 Time Magazine ranked him as one of the hundred most influential people in the world. His many books have been translated into several languages, including Spanish. These include Chimpanzee Politics (1982), Peacemaking Among Primates (1989), Good Natured (1996), Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape (1997), The Ape and the Sushi Master (2001), Our Inner Ape (2005), Primates and Philosophers (2006) and The Age of Empathy (2009). He is currently Full Professor of Primatology at Emory University in Atlanta, member of the National Academy of Sciences and director of Living Links Center, Yerkes National Primate Research Center, the largest biomedical research centre working with primates.

Frans de Waal says he has no interest in religion, but gladly accepted to take a tour around the Cathedral and churches in the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona with Jaume Bertranpetit last September. The scientist stood wide-eyed in front of the cathedral, watching on with his primatologist’s gaze at how people arrived, left their belongings piled on the floor and started dancing sardanas. He wished to go unnoticed, but as his stature matches his renowned intellect, he towered above the swirling circles of dancers like a teacher watching over kids in the playground.

Last summer I interviewed Robin Dunbar for Mètode and when I asked what difference he saw between humans and chimpanzees, he did not hesitate to point to religion.

Dunbar said religion, did he? Well, I would never have answered that. In fact, in ethology we often use the term superstition. It is a term that appears frequently in relation to the behaviours observed in many species that cannot be explained by any adaptive function. Sometimes we see that certain species always choose to go the long way round, they are scared of things that do not pose a threat and insist on spending energy by going places they have no reason to go. Humans are not the only creatures of habit, or the only ones given to imitate and follow others. And this can mean a whole group mimics senseless behaviour. I do not really see any great difference, but if I had to choose one I would not single out religion, perhaps because it doesn’t interest me. Rather, I would pick the huge level of sophistication human language has achieved, but I insist that even here the difference is only to a point. Whenever the essential components of something are analysed and studied –for example in the case of language this would be its symbolic function and organisational role– we see that these components are also found in other species. Linguists have long defined language as «symbolic communication». Then they realised that if that was the essence of language, then language did not make humans special. So then they said syntax was the really essential component.

Could you describe a recent primatological discovery or experiment of particular relevance that may have led to this change in our conception of such differences?
Sure. For example, you can get capuchin monkeys to collect pebbles from the courtyard if you pay them for it, with something like cucumber slices. We did this and everything went smoothly until we started to pay some of them with a «coin» considered more valuable than cucumber: grapes. Seeing this, the underpaid capuchins protested at this unequal treatment by throwing their pebbles and cucumber slices up in the air, and refusing to continue to cooperate with such arbitrary experimenters. It is an example of the ultimatum game: you offer someone 100 euros on condition that they share it with someone else and they accept; then –out of greed– they only offer to share 15 euros, people will reject the deal because they prefer to have nothing than to accept something they consider unfair.

When I read this in Our Inner Ape I realised that the willingness to lose something in order to punish someone who breaks certain rules must be related to the need for members of a species to observe certain rules to survive. Among humans, tribes of hunters have proven to be those that offer the fairest deal and are less likely to accept unfair play, as their shared fate depends on it. Meanwhile, the least egalitarian prove to be farmers, as they do not depend on anyone. 
Yes, this can be seen in different species. We chose capuchin monkeys because they are very cooperative, but these experiments have also been done with chimpanzees.

«If I had to choose one difference between humans and chimpanzees I would pick the huge level of sophistication human language has achieved, but I insist that even here the difference is only to a point»

In contrast to Chimpanzee Politics, your book entitled The Age of Empathy does not talk of betrayal and revenge but of positive trends in a large number of species…
Yes, The Age of Empathy is a title with a double meaning. On the one hand, it refers to this ancient feeling of empathy, from the evolutionary standpoint. It is so old that it dates back to a common core, shared with many other species, and therefore we can observe such behaviour not only in chimpanzees, but in many other mammals too. On the other hand, it refers to our current times, to a moment in which scientists are focusing on empathy and speaking of cultural changes, driven by the global financial crisis and the beginning of the Obama era. Nowadays, nobody believes in the doctrines advocated by Thatcher and Reagan, who said there was no need to worry because markets regulate themselves wonderfully. Rather, the exaltation of cutthroat competition is being replaced by notions of cooperation and social responsibility. People have always resorted to biological arguments to justify selfishness and competition but we should not forget the other side of the coin. Indeed, biology has also produced what keeps communities together and enables members of the human species –and of other species– to combine and coordinate their efforts and to care for those in need.

There are also a lot of studies being done into how our animal instincts determine our political choices, like those by Little and Roberts on how people prefer individuals with certain traits (like Bush) in times of war, or by Douglas Johnson on how people who display stronger physiological reactions on being shown a picture of a large spider on a frightened face or of a wound with maggots are those who give more extreme responses in favour of military spending, the death penalty, gun ownership, the Bible, and so on. For example, in his latest book Dunbar says that Obama won the elections not only because he was taller than his opponent but also because his features were more symmetrical.
We most certainly make many unconscious positive associations with height, and this greatly affects politicians. Sarkozy, for example, always poses and gives his speeches standing on a box as he knows height is very important. This is why –primatologically speaking– it was very interesting to note the confusion stirred up when Hilary Clinton entered the stage. Height is important in politics because politicians are usually men. But height is not important in women, so it was difficult to compare because the criteria that apply to women are different. Her opponents did not know how to respond in debates either, because although people like a politician to be firm with their opponents they don’t like to see a man thrash a woman in public, so her opponents didn’t know quite what to do. It was also very interesting for primatologists to observe their body language, although of course politics is not confined to this sort of thing. 

Another reason why people devoted to studying ethics are interested in primatology is the desire to understand not only moral conduct, but also immoral behaviour, and especially some crimes such as infanticide, genocide or rape, which occur in some species but not in others. There have been very controversial explanations of some crimes, such as Thornhill and Palmer’s in A Natural History of Rape
Yes, I wrote a very critical review of this book in the New York Times. And although many women sent me thank-you letters, I don’t like doing critical reviews and have decided not to do any more. In this case, I think the book is partially right in that rape is not just an act of domination, but there is clearly a sexual component too. Meanwhile, I think it is wrong when it states that rape is an adaptation, i.e., a behavioural trait selected for its usefulness in passing down an individual’s genes. There are men who rape other men, or who rape women or girls who are too old or too young to have children. So they do something that does not help them perpetuate their genes and may even lead to their own death. In this respect it is bad for everyone concerned, including the rapist. I don’t think it is an adaptive trait, but rather just a side effect of other traits that may be adaptive –such as sexual desire and aggressiveness, which may be extreme in some males– and, when combined, lead to sexual assault. I did not like the authors’ recommendations either: that men should reflect on the biological origins of their behaviour and that women should avoid dressing provocatively when in dodgy places. Anyway, it is complicated to demonstrate that a trait is an adaptation in general, and I do not think the authors managed to show that rape is a way for humans to pass down their genes. Rather, it is a force derived from males’ propensity to violence and excitability, which can lead to this extreme in certain abnormal cases.

Christine Panagiotidis

In addition to the origins of moral and immoral behaviour, there is another moral issue that concerns philosophers, that is, the ethics of primate research. I do not know if you are aware that this summer the European Commission agreed on a moratorium on biomedical research in great apes –except in emergency situations– which will come into effect in seven years. How likely is it that the United States will do something similar?
The United States is working on a similar law. And anyway, scientists are abandoning invasive experimentation on great apes. The place where I work is well-known for its experiments on primates and we do not carry out experiments on great apes –even though we do experiment on other primates–. In general, the younger researchers are less likely to harm great apes. I think that in ten years’ time, invasive experimentation on great apes will be a thing of the past. I prefer not to use the language of rights because it seems to invite confrontation. I’d rather talk about wellbeing. I think the rule is this: what you would not do to a human, you should not do to a great ape. Oh, and there’s something else I don’t like, that is, when some people experiment on primates without actually doing it themselves. They send orders to third parties and have no actual contact with the experimental subjects. They do not know the subjects –they do not visit or see them before or after the experiment–. This doesn’t seem right. I think if you are going to do something like this, at least you should be there with them.

And speaking of ethics in research, especially as I’m interviewing you for the magazine Mètode, I have no choice but to ask about the Hauser scandal.
Yeah, it was a huge blow in a small community like the one studying primatology.

And within that community, does this especially affect those who use the anecdotal method in as much as it depends on the observer to tell the truth? For example, it is particularly important that Jane Goodall is legit, since nobody else is going to spend forty years as observer in Gombe?
No. The problem has nothing to do with the anecdotal method. Individual observations can be corroborated by others, leading to new studies or experiments that provide new data and which were sparked by that first observation. In the case of Marc D. Hauser, the problems were related to his particular experiments, so it has nothing to do with the method as such.

I do not know Hauser personally, but I found his highly successful book Moral Minds really boring, a collection of the typical things anyone at Harvard might know, including the central idea that we are born with certain innate linguistic skills, and with certain abilities for moral evaluation, and that a philosopher’s job is to extract, as speakers do, the grammatical rules of morality. The idea is fine in itself, but the idea is John Rawls’ (A Theory of Justice), who explains it more clearly and concisely.
Some people have also pointed out similarities with the conferences delivered by John Mikhail two years earlier.

I understand the decision not to make negative comments, even about Moral Minds, but there is something I cannot understand: how on earth could he think we would believe that tamarind monkeys would recognise themselves in a mirror? How is it nobody suspected anything, Richard Wrangham, for example?
Well I don’t know, I don’t know if anyone was consulted. The fact is, there were some videos allegedly showing tamarind monkeys looking into the mirror and supposedly recognising themselves. But those who reviewed the material said what they actually saw were some tamarinds and some mirrors, but they did not demonstrate what Hauser said they did.

And now we have a better idea of what animals that recognise themselves really do.

Yes, we did the experiment with elephants because the previous experiments had used mirrors that were too small. The elephants couldn’t possibly recognise themselves just seeing a piece of rough skin they had never seen before. But as soon as we put elephant-size mirrors, they went straight up to them and began to do some really interesting inimitable contortions with their trunks, and the cameras recorded how they touched points highlighted by the scientists in charge of the experiment.

Your video shows this clearly, but this also fits in with what we know about their intelligence, memory, compassion, and so on. My theory is that certain capabilities are ethically relevant in species with high maternal investment: a 22 month-long pregnancy, ten years of childhood, offspring do not leave their mothers until they are sixteen, and the latter can live up to eighty… But tamarind parents raise their offspring in a flash, in just two years they are adults and only live to seventeen. It does not add up. And this was not all…
Well, it seems there are eight charges pending clarification, including the charge of falsifying data, which is something really serious. I mean, one can make a mistake accidentally. It could be a mistake due to incompetence, for example, if you do not realise the importance of controlling factors. Then there are the errors of negligence, because you do not make all the necessary tests, and so on. But falsifying data is as bad as it can get. These are very serious charges.

«Empathy is so ancient that it dates back to a common core, shared with many other species, and therefore we can observe such behaviour not only in chimpanzees, but in many other mammals too»

So, what should Harvard do? 
Well I think what Harvard is doing is not helping. They keep quiet about it, then they come out and say it appears the problem does not affect his work on this or that, trying to separate his properly conducted research from the studies in which he is suspected of misconduct…  they are dragging out the problem. Either they should exonerate him altogether if he is innocent, or –if the allegations are true– they should expel him from the university, and not try to separate the studies in which he committed fraud from those he didn’t. The whole system of science is based on trust. If scientists say they have conducted an investigation and obtained such and such a result, we must believe them. If that trust is betrayed, they don’t just discredit themselves as researchers, they harm the whole system. Of course, if I know someone has falsified data for some of their research, I will not believe in the results they say they got in other investigations.

I dread to think about this problem occurring in Spain, knowing how vulnerable young people are to the whims of the «feudal lords» of their research field. 
Reporting your superiors takes guts in any country. These students have damaged their own curriculum, and the professional standing they might have had thanks to Hauser’s influence. They have put a great deal at stake by reporting his misconduct. I do not know what will happen, but it is certainly very worrying.

I’ve always loved Frans de Waal’s books, but knowing that he refused to recognise great apes’ rights and that he works in a primate experimentation centre with one of the worst moral reputations in the West, I had not expected such a gentle person, one so contrary to confrontation. I also found that despite having written so much he still has a lot to tell, and that he is even better at lecturing than at writing. The conference he gave at Barcelona’s Molecular Biology congress (EMBO) was really amazing. I shall certainly carry on reading his books.


¹ Richard Wrangham és coautor amb Hauser de diversos treballs. Autor de Demonic Males i Catching Fire, i de Chimpanzee Cultures, coeditat amb De Waal. 

© Mètode 2011 - 69. Online only. Elective Affinities - Spring 2011

ICREA researcher, co-director of the del UPF Center for Animal Ethics and president of the Great Ape Project-Spain.