The Paula Gordon Show
Natural Goodness

Internationally recognized primate scientist Frans de Waal believes we're experiencing a second, more sophisticated Darwinian Revolution, which will vastly expand our understanding of basic human psychology and human nature. Professor de Waal has studied other Great Apes for almost twenty-five years and agrees with Charles Darwin -- aggression is only one element in human nature. Other vitally important elements have been neglected, including morality, language, cooperation and technology. "These deserve just as much attention as aggression."

Professor de Waal has looked at parallels there are between us and the other Great Apes (orangutans, chimps, gorillas, and bonobos). In the debate over "what is moral" which has raged for 100 years, de Waal does not claim chimps are moral beings, but he has documented primates have a powerful interest in how their societies are structured. His interests are the parallels between other primates and us, particularly sympathy/empathy and social norms/reciprocity rules. He's confident the survival of individual social animals (of which primates are only one example) depends on how the group functions. That gives individuals a great stake in the social environment. Professor de Waal uses beavers to make his point. "If your survival depends not on a dam but on a social group, then you repair things in that social group or you prevent things from happening in that group that are not in your interest." On a practical level, he concludes humans need a better balance between the individualism championed in America and a stronger sense of community and connectedness.

Our species' big challenge? We evolved living in groups of no more than 200 individuals. Now our cities count people in the millions. "It's impressive how relatively peaceful our cities are. Chimps couldn't manage the task." It's another testimony to how good we are at adapting, as earlier we adapted to radically different climates.

And then there are our cousins the Bonobos, discovered only in 1929. Bonobos are very, very sexy -- 75% of their sexual interactions have absolutely nothing to do with reproduction. Copulation is natural in all combinations of sexes. That seems to be central to how peaceful they are -- they literally "make love not war." And females seem to be both dominant and central to bonobo society. It's alarming that bonobos live almost exclusively in the politically unstable Democratic Republic of Congo, putting the species' survival extremely at risk. "Since bonobos are equally close to us as the chimpanzee, we cannot ignore them. It's very hard to draw lines in evolution."

Frans De Waal

Frans B.M. de Waal was born in the Netherlands in 1948. He trained as a zoologist and ethologist and earned a Ph.D. in biology from the University of Utrecht. He is Research Professor in Psychobiology at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, where he is also Professor of Primate Behavior and Professor of Psychology. In addition to Good Natured and Bonobos: The Forgotten Ape, Professor de Waal wrote Chimpanzee Politics and Peacemaking among Primates. His current interests include food-sharing, social reciprocity, and conflict-resolution in primates as well as the origins of morality and justice in human society.


Conversation 1

Frans de Waal, Paula Gordon and Bill Russell stand atop an observation tower overlooking a colony of chimpanzees for this conversation, which is enlivened by Professor de Waal's play-by-play of activities among the chimpanzees.  Describing what he's discovered about the nature of primates, Professor de Waal tells how his general interest in animal behavior led him to focus on chimpanzees and monkeys. He compares them with humans. He says anthropomorphizing is not a "sin" but "Don't attribute what you don't know."  He tells how biologists compare the ways species adapt to their environments, from cockroaches and crocodiles to humans.


Conversation 2

The way humans have invaded all kinds of climates demonstrates how extremely adaptive humans are. Professor de Waal talks about humans as a "technological species." Chimps, he says, are socially similar, but technologically very different.  He describes different chimpanzee cultures and describes non-verbal communication among primates, including humans. (He uses human politicians as examples.) He cites his work with chimps who can't "promise" things but do make deals. They are also very good at "keeping score." Professor de Waal describes his research and observations of changes as central as the struggle to become alpha male in a chimp community.


Conversation 3

Humans, orangutans, chimps, gorillas, and bonobos are all apes. Bonobos are the least well known, discovered only in 1929. "Physically elegant and graceful" with long legs, bonobos are known for their peacefulness and for sex. Professor de Waal characterizes their behavior as "make love not war" and compares Bonobos to our ancient ancestor LucyAfter World War II, a number of people emphasized the aggressive nature of humans. Professor de Waal believes aggression was overstated, that it is only one of many elements in human behavior. He describes other, equally or more important parallels he sees between humans and other primates. "It's very hard to draw lines in development or in evolution." He describes Darwin's sophisticated attitude toward other primates and relates it to his own extensive research on "primate reconciliation." Suggesting humans' rational behavior has been overestimated, Professor de Waal he describes how the rational can never be separated from emotions or context.


Conversation 4

Professor de Waal describes his reciprocity research with chimps and compares chimp behavior to humans. Language, he believes, complicates communications. He describes how language is not only an information system but also functions as a distraction system. Our species' biggest challenge, according to Professor de Waal, is to adapt to living with great masses of other humans. We did not evolve in such large groups. After millions of years living in small groups of not more than 200 hunter-gatherers, large masses of humans living together is a recent circumstance for which we are not prepared by evolution.  Professor de Waal believes we can learn a great deal from watching other primates. We have primate tendencies which are much older than some social scientists would have us believe -- reciprocity, reconciliation, getting even, enforcing social rules are among those tendencies. While we cannot simply be anything we want to be, our primate natures go a long way in describing humansâ will to cooperate, to help people in need, to reassure people in trouble. Professor de Waal describes the importance of how a group functions to the survival of individuals. He compares the social activities of beavers and primates, humans and chimps.


Conversation 5

Professor de Waal describes how "survival of the fittest" has been replaced by more sophisticated thinking about the functioning of groups and individuals within groups. He compares chimpanzee reconciliation with the "very intensive sexual contacts" of bonobos. He places bonobos and chimpanzees equally far or close from the common ancestor we all share. He is convinced primates have much greater flexibility in social relationships than has previously been assumed, citing the central role of female bonobos and of sex in bonobo societies. Humans' "very sexy relative" the bonobos banish the credibility of human moralizers who would restrict sex to reproduction. Bonobos evolved differently from chimps for a variety of reasons which permitted larger groups and female bonding, The study of cognition increasingly transcends boundaries as an interest in issues of evolution blossoms across many disciplines. Professor de Waal sees a second Darwinian Revolution in the making. Perhaps it will allow us to better balance community and connectedness with what he sees as America'  s over-emphasis on individualism.



Living Links Conference

Kate Egan supports Professor de Waal and the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, dealing with outside contacts including the press. She was unusually helpful in facilitating arrangements. We thank her.

Sam Petersen of Petersen Selkirk Public Relations and the people at University of California Press (publishers of Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape) made extraordinary efforts to be sure we were prepared. The publicity department at Harvard University Press (publishers of Good Natured) also was quick to help us. We are grateful to them all.

Additional Links:

Good Natured is publish by Harvard University Press. Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape is published by the University of California Press.

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas' The Old Way shows how the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert were fully integrated into their environment before agriculturalist and pastoralist invaded their land.

Richard Wrangham has also contributed deep understanding to the kind of animal the human animal is.

From his perspective as a paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey looks at the troubled future of homo sapiens.

Ian Tattersall is is the Director of and Curator in the Department of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History. in the absence of physical evidence, he thinks that art may be what separated behaviorally modern homo sapiens from anatomically modern homo sapiens.

Psychologist and scientist Paul Ekman and His Holiness the Dalai Lama have examined together the deep connection of humans with all sentient beings in their jointly written Emotional Awareness. Dr. de Waal is one of the contributors to the book.

Philosopher Frederick Ferré, building on Alfred North Whitehead's philosophical work, sees continuity in our universe all the down to the quark.

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