Two elephants walk together at night. (No, this isn’t a joke—it’s a scene from a wildlife reserve in Thailand.) There is heavy rain and the older elephant slips and falls in the mud. She’s unable to get up. The younger elephant, unrelated to her companion, stays with her for most of the night. The next day a group of mahouts, elephant caretakers from the wildlife reserve, try to hoist the elephant up to her feet with braces and ropes. In all the commotion—a crowd has gathered to watch the rescue—the younger elephant remains by the side of her fallen friend. The mahouts and the crowd shout for her to move out of the way, so they can get better leverage. But she won’t budge. Instead, she burrows her head under the body of the other elephant and tries to lift her up. She does this several times, risking injury in the attempts. Incredibly, the elephant appears to recognize that the mahouts want to help rather than hurt her friend. She times her pushes, or so it seemed to me, with the hoisting of the mahouts.
Until recently, biologists thought such complex behavior—behavior with an undeniable moral dimension—was exclusive to human beings. As much as anyone in the world, the primatologist Frans de Waal is responsible for changing this perception. Starting with Chimpanzee Politics—de Waal’s fascinating account of the intrigues and machinations of a chimpanzee troupe in the Arnhem Zoo—and continuing through recent books like Good Natured and Our Inner Ape, de Waal has illustrated the uncanny similarities between human beings and our primate relatives. De Waal has not restricted himself to descriptions of behavior, however. He is famous for his willingness to enter into the largely taboo world of animal emotions, where research is routinely dismissed as “anthropomorphizing.” The result is an impressive array of evidence suggesting that we are not the only species to have moral feelings.
De Waal’s research is no friend to human vanity. In the grand tradition of Galileo and Darwin, de Waal provokes those who seek to draw a clear line between human beings and everything else. But his message is an optimistic one. If human morality has deep roots in our evolutionary past, then we can expect it to be more resilient, less susceptible to the contingencies of history. Seeing morality in this light also undermines the view of human beings as inherently selfish—a view that de Waal terms “veneer theory.” Morality, according to veneer theory, is merely a recent cultural invention, a thin veneer that masks our “true” selfish animal nature. De Waal’s criticisms of this theory (which we discuss at some length below) are the topic of his most recent book, Primates and Philosophers. The book is based on lectures de Waal presented at Princeton University, and features responses to his work from four renowned philosophers and authors.
De Waal is also a remarkably hospitable interview subject. When I arrived in the morning I was treated to a tour of the primate center and a bucket of apples to throw to the chimps in their enclosures. (There are very few things I’d rather do than toss apples to chimpanzees.) After the interview, Josh Plotkin, one of de Waal’s graduate students, showed me videos of his work in Thailand—including the video depicting the elephant rescue attempt described above. That evening I was invited to de Waal’s house for a dinner highlighted by his wife, Catherine’s, hitchhiking stories and capped with a shot of “the cognac of tequilas.” The interview itself took place at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, about forty minutes north of Atlanta.
I. BONOBOS GONE WILD
THE BELIEVER: I want to discuss your work with chimpanzees especially, but let’s start by talking about the bonobos, the closest primate relative of the chimpanzee. Your accounts of bonobos have always been great reading. You call them the “hippie ape,” you describe some of their interactions as “orgies”—the reader gets a general sense of them as a sort of nonviolent free-love egalitarian noble savage kind of animal. You’d think they’d be the celebrities of the animal kingdom. Instead, they are, in your words, “the forgotten ape.” Why have they been forgotten?
FRANS DE WAAL: Well, first of all, we’ve only recently learned about the bonobos. The first discovery of these types of these kinds of apes was the chimpanzee, whom we’ve known since the seventeenth century. And even the few bonobos we did know then were called chimpanzees—everything was a chimpanzee at the time. So that’s one reason they were discovered much later. The fieldwork was done much later. There were very few captive studies. The other reason is that the story of the bonobo didn’t fit the thinking.
BLVR: Which thinking is that?
FDW: The postwar thinking was that we’re an aggressive species. Which is pretty logical after World War II. But it became a kind of obsession—to ask: Why are we so aggressive? Is it an instinct or is it not an instinct? Is it ingrained in our natures or not? That was the issue. One camp, mostly biologists, claimed that we were by nature aggressive. And a group of anthropologists used the chimpanzee initially as a counterexample. These anthropologists said, “Look at the ape. Our close relatives just travel through the trees and eat fruit and are peaceful. So that means that our ancestors were probably peaceful and aggression is a cultural product.”
BLVR: Probably a comforting thought.
FDW: Yes, but when the first reports in the ’70s came out about chimpanzees killing each other and also killing monkeys, all of a sudden the counterarguments to the biologists were wiped off the table. And people saw this as the ultimate proof that human beings are an aggressive, nasty, and selfish species. The chimpanzee became the primary model for the human species and now everything just clicked into place. That was the new model: “We are aggressive, they are aggressive, we must have been aggressive for six million years. Look at the ape.”
BLVR: And then came the bonobos.
FDW: Yes, then along came the behavioral data on bonobos in the ’80s. And they didn’t fit into the new picture. And they still don’t fit into that picture. And so there are still people who will argue that the last common ancestor for humans was more chimplike. But there’s no good argument for that. Genetically, they are exactly equidistant to us as the chimpanzee. There’s no good reason except for an ideological reason. They don’t fit the new thinking about the inherent aggressiveness of human beings.
BLVR: They fit the previous thinking.
FDW: Yes. Basically, if your view is that human beings are an inherently aggressive species then the bonobo is problematic. If your view is that humans have all sorts of characteristics including being highly cooperative, then the bonobos are a very interesting example to look at. I take the position that I don’t know which one better reflects our own nature. I think we have a lot of both.
BLVR: Can you describe some of the ways bonobos break out of the war-mongering mold?
FDW: First, there is no evidence from the field or from studies in captivity that bonobos kill each other. This has been seen many times in chimpanzees, killing each other, killing infants. For bonobos this has never been seen. They are friendlier, more peaceful. It’s not that they are never aggressive; they are. But they don’t kill. And they have a very effective way of avoiding aggression, which is their sexual interactions. So that’s one issue. And the other is that female bonobos collectively dominate the males, which probably also helps control aggression. So it’s a female-dominated species, and a very sexy species, none of which fits the thinking of mostly male theoreticians.
BLVR: You tell a funny story in Our Inner Ape about a lecture in which you described the failure of male bonobos to fight and establish dominance over the females. An audience member raised his hand and asked: “Well, what’s wrong with them? What’s wrong with these male bonobos?”
FDW: Right. Many male scientists react that way. Bonobos are uncomfortable to have around. They’re too peaceful, and they’re female dominated. We can’t handle that. Now, I personally don’t think that our ancestors were female dominated. That developed for the bonobo. But even if our last common ancestor was female dominated, that would be very interesting. We would need a different evolutionary story to explain how we got where we are. I always feel that facts that are inconvenient for certain theories should be faced straight-on rather than be neglected.
BLVR: I like what you said in one of the books—that the male bonobos have it pretty good. They’re sexually liberated, they have a low-stress existence…
FDW: There’s objective evidence for that. Most groups of chimpanzees have twice as many adult females than males. Most groups of bonobos have equal numbers of adult males and females. Since the birth ratio is fifty-fifty for both species, there must be a lot of male chimpanzees who die early. And that probably has to do with all the fighting and tensions and stress levels and so on. So in terms of health and longevity the male bonobo has the better life than the chimpanzee male.
BLVR: I have to bring up “GG rubbing.” My wife and I have The Forgotten Ape on a table in our living room, and any time we have a party, if it’s a good party, any way, someone will start flipping through the book and showing everyone the pictures of the female bonobos GG-rubbing.
FDW: [Laughing] Is that right? Like having Playboy on the coffee table.
BLVR: Right, Primate Playboy. Something about the act, the name—it’s a great name, GG-rubbing. And the picture. It demands attention. What is GG-rubbing, exactly? And what is its purpose? Why do female bonobos engage in it so often?
FDW: GG-rubbing is when females cling to each other almost like mother and child, they rub their genitals together, basically a sexual interaction. In the U.S. there’s a shyness about sex, as you probably know, so many people who work on bonobos in this country don’t want to call it sex. So they would say it’s “affiliation” or it’s “friendly”—
BLVR: It seems extremely friendly.
FDW: —or they’ll say it’s not sex because it’s not reproductive, which excludes, I suppose, all gay sex as sex. In fact, I thought it was amusing when the Paula Jones case came along in the U.S., that they actually had to find a definition of sex. Because Clinton tried to deny that he had sex with someone, and so the court came up with a definition and they said sex is all contact involving the genitals. So it’s official now: GG-rubbing has officially been declared sex. I use that argument if anyone wants to call it something else. And it clearly is sex. They rub their genitals and their clitorises together. Partly it resolves conflicts between them. Partly it’s a conciliatory thing. It’s a greeting. Mostly it promotes bonding between them. And the bonding is a very strong political instrument, because female bonobos only dominate the males collectively. A female is not individually capable of dominating a male. So GG-rubbing is basically a political tool.
II. THE REAL DARWINIAN POSITION
BLVR: Much of your work recently has been aimed at correcting another misconception—that morality is exclusively a human invention, something that evolved long after we split from other apes. Do you think apes and bonobos are moral species? Do they exhibit moral behavior?
FDW: Well, I usually don’t call it moral behavior. I tend to call it building blocks or prerequisites for morality. I don’t think that chimpanzees are moral beings in the human sense. But they do have empathy, sympathy, reciprocity. They share food, resolve conflicts.All of these elements are present in human morality. So what I argue is that the basic psychology of the great apes is an essential element of human morality. Humans add things to that, making our morality far more complex. And that’s why I don’t want to call chimpanzees moral beings exactly.
BLVR: Why do you want to hesitate if you believe that chimpanzees have gratitude and empathy, indignation, maybe, what we call the moral emotions?
FDW: They have the moral emotions, yes.You can see gratitude, outrage, a sense of fairness—you can see parallels and equivalences in all the great apes. But to get to morality you need more than just the emotions. So yes, empathy is a good thing to have. And I cannot imagine how humans could have morality without empathy, but what morality adds to that, for example, is what Adam Smith termed the “impartial spectator.” You need to be able to look at a situation, and make a judgment about that situation even though it doesn’t affect you yourself. So I can see an interaction between two humans and say this one is wrong and this one is right. I’m not convinced that chimpanzees have this kind of distance in their judgments. They certainly have judgments about what they do and how they interact with others. And how others treat them. I’m sure they have opinions about that, about how to react to that, but whether they have opinions about more abstract interactions around them and a concept about what kind of society they want to live in. Do they have a concept about fairness between others, or do they only care about fairness for themselves? That kind of distance that you see in human moral reasoning. I’m not sure you’ll find that in a chimpanzee.
BLVR: Correct me if I’m wrong but I thought I read something in Chimpanzee Politics and some other work indicating that chimps do react with a kind of indignation when they see one chimp mistreating another chimp.A third party will react, punishing the offender.
FDW: Yes, true.Yes.
BLVR: Wouldn’t that count?
FDW: Yes—I think you can probably find examples of this in chimpanzee life. But in a way even the interactions around them affect themselves: these are their friends, their relatives, their rivals.They are never impartial spectators. If chimpanzees have a morality, it likely is a self-centered morality.
BLVR: Can you give some examples of empathy in other species?
FDW: Well, yes. Today, you saw that old [chimpanzee] female Peony who can barely get up on the climb bars, right?
FDW: We often see young females push her up onto the climber. So that’s altruistic helping because it’s really hard to imagine that they’re doing it to get some favor back from this old lady. I give many examples in my books of sophisticated empathetic behavior in chimpanzees, including those that clearly require “theory of mind”— the ability to take the perspective of other chimps.
BLVR: So you think when a young chimp is helping Penny up the climb bars, she feels her frustration in some way, and she does this by taking her perspective, imagining what it must be like not to be able to climb on her own?
FDW: Well, the young chimp must understand Penny’s goal and also the trouble she has trying to reach her goal. That’s a very complex action right there. In humans there is a literature that says that perspective-taking requires a strong sense of self.A “self-other” distinction. Which is why in children, perspective-taking comes only at two years, when they are able to recognize themselves in the mirror. So we did the mirror-recognition experiments with chimps and also recently with elephants. Because elephants are very well known as highly altruistic animals. And they have large brains. So the thinking was that more complex empathy, based on perspective-taking, must correlate with mirror recognition.
BLVR: I saw Yale biologist Laurie Santos give a talk on perspective-taking or “theory of mind”capacities in monkeys, and I was amazed by the question/answer period. Hands shot up—everyone tried to come up with alternate explanations for her findings, even ones that were ad hoc to a bizarre degree.There was such deep skepticism,which was surprising from an outsider’s perspective. From my point of view, I thought, Of course other animals can take the perspective of others; of course they can imagine what other monkeys or chimps are thinking or feeling. But obviously that’s not the common view among biologists.
FDW: It’s a recent bias.Previous experiments showed that chimpanzees had this ability, and in that period, this was in the ’70s, the findings didn’t get much attention. No one cared.Then a bunch of studies came along in the ’80s that cast doubt on those findings. And then everyone jumped on those studies and said:“There it is! Now we have the big difference between humans and animals— ‘theory of mind,’ taking the perspective of others. That’s what distinguishes us.” I think that people are extremely eager to find that kind of difference.There’s a long history going back all the way to Darwin, before Darwin, where certain small items were found to be a uniquely human feature.At one time there was thought to be a small bone in our jaw that was only human, but then they found it in other species. The ability to use tools was a big one, until Jane Goodall discovered tool use by chimpanzees in the field. Then language. And recently theory of mind became the big thing. But now of course it’s crumbling.
There are more and more findings coming out that perspective-taking is not even restricted to primates—probably dogs have it, some birds may have it.
BLVR: Dogs have it? I knew it!
FDW: Yes, there are good findings on dogs, ravens, goats. At some level or other, perspective-taking is present in many animals. It may reach its highest level in bigbrained animals, dolphins, elephants, chimpanzees, and I’m sure humans go beyond this… but it’s a continuum. We’re farther along on the continuum, but it’s not completely absent in other animals. And that’s upsetting to a lot of people.
BLVR: Meanwhile, your most recent book, Primates and Philosophers, attacks the view that human beings aren’t really moral, never mind nonhumans. You argue against the view that human morality is a thin veneer, a kind of cultural overlay or hypocritical mask covering our deeply selfish animal nature.You see this as fundamentally misguided because of the connection between our morality and animal emotions.
FDW: The interesting thing about my position is that it’s really the old Darwinian position: human morality is an outflow of primate sociality.That’s how Darwin saw it— it’s an outgrowth of the social instincts.It’s also very close to a Humean position and to Adam Smith. It’s a moral sentimentalism—the view that emotions drive morality. In the last thirty years, people have abandoned that view. Richard Dawkins; Robert Wright in The Moral Animal; Michael Ghiselin; T. H. Huxley, a contemporary of Darwin’s. They all take this position that evolution could never have produced morality, because evolution produces only selfish, nasty, aggressive individuals.And obviously human morality is a way of going beyond that. So evolution could not have produced human morality—it is something we came up with.What annoys me is that this is being sold as a Darwinian position. As if the true Darwinian paradigm dictates that evolution cannot have produced morality. But if you read Darwin’s book The Descent of Man, it’s very obvious that Darwin himself did not agree with this view at all. So we’ve been fed a bogus “Darwinian” position for thirty years, one that confuses the way evolution works with the things that evolution produces.Because the way evolution works, yes—it’s a nasty process. Evolution works by eliminating those who are not successful. Natural selection is a process that cares only about your own reproduction, or gene replication, and everything else is irrelevant. But then what natural selection produces is extremely variable. Natural selection can produce the social indifference you find in many solitary animals. But it can also produce extremely cooperative, friendly, and empathic characteristics. But this product of natural selection is ignored. And so, for example, human empathy is often presented as some sort of afterthought of evolution or something contrived—some people have argued that we are never truly empathic and kind. But if you look at the neuroscience literature on human empathy, it’s obvious that it’s an automated reaction.That’s a strong counterargument to the claim that empathy is a contrived, culturally influenced trait. Because people cannot even suppress empathy. So take for example people in a movie theater where something terrible is about to happen.What do people do?
BLVR: They slam their hands over their eyes.
FDW: Yes. The reason we do that is that empathy is such a strong reaction, we have no control over it, and the only way to get control over it is to block the images.So I think empathy is a deeply seated characteristic of the human species.And it’s by no means limited to the human species; it’s a very old mammalian characteristic. Recently a paper came up on mice empathy, so it’s a very ancient characteristic which fits with Darwin’s position and my position on empathy and its origin. In Good Natured and Primates and Philosophers,I take a stand that this whole line of thinking is confused—the line of thinking that says by nature we’re nasty and so we can never naturally get to morality. It’s not that I don’t think culture influences human morality. I do think that. But certainly we didn’t start from scratch when we evolved morality.
BLVR: We started with moral emotions—which are as much a part of our natures as the selfish drives we have.
BLVR: In your book you say that the “veneer theory” is a result of something you call “Beethoven’s error.” Can you explain what that is?
FDW: Beethoven’s error is the confusion I alluded to between process and outcome.The focus on the process of natural selection started in the ’70s with Dawkins, who popularized the view that selection occurred at the level of the gene.This took us to the bare minimum and everyone focused all the attention on the selection process. But if you do that, you forget about the beautiful things that the process can produce. People like Dawkins focused their whole mind on the nastiness of the selection process.And they were intent on providing shock therapy on people in the social sciences and philosophy. And when the social scientists would say, “But sometimes people are kind to each other,” they would reply, “No, no, that’s all made up, they’re faking that. There has to be some sort of selfish ulterior motive behind it.”And so I called this type of error the “Beethoven error” because Beethoven produced his most beautiful music under the most atrocious circumstances (his Vienna apartment was described as disorganized and incredibly dirty).And that’s true for a lot of process/outcome errors.Take cooking.The process of cooking is by no means clean and attractive. If you go into a Chinese restaurant’s kitchen, you probably don’t want to eat Chinese for a while. But you do eat it because we make that distinction. We forget about the process and enjoy the product. Natural selection produces some beautiful things—like genuine empathy.
III. “HUMAN CARING IS PREDICATED ON AFFORDABILITY.”
BLVR: On to a more philosophical topic.You seem to believe we can learn some moral lessons from the behavior of other nonhuman primates today. How does that work? What can the behavior of chimpanzees and other primates teach us about our own behavior? How can we derive claims about how we ought to act?
FDW: I’m not sure we can directly derive it.
BLVR: Well, OK—how can primate research influence the way we want to guide our behavior or design our institutions?
FDW: If you start from the assumption that humans are entirely competitive and that everything is regulated by selfish motives—and Americans do this more than Europeans—you end up with the conservative streak which is largely based on this kind of social Darwinist idea: let people fend for themselves, they will ultimately improve themselves or they’ll die off, which is fine also.That sort of very harsh political ideology is often sold as being congruent with how nature operates.You look at free-market capitalism as an extension of nature.Wall Street is a Darwinian jungle. But this is not how human nature actually operates. People are not completely guided by selfish motives. A lot of work coming out of behavioral economics challenges this view that humans act selfishly even in economic life, never mind social life. Even economic decision-making is not driven exclusively by selfish motives. And social life, social considerations, and behavior are even less tied purely to selfish drives.A full understanding of human nature, helped by an understanding of the nature of our closest primates, will very quickly lead you to the conclusion, as Adam Smith well understood, that free-market capitalism needs to be counterbalanced by social motives. And then you’ll get more of a mitigated type of capitalism, a softer capitalism. That doesn’t mean you eliminate the free market. But it means that you build a society in which there is care for the poor, where there is reciprocity for others.
BLVR: But I’m still not clear on how you “get” that mitigated capitalism…
FDW: Take Hurricane Katrina,for example,which in the U.S. exposed this line of thinking. The line of thinking was that we don’t need to care about the poor, they will fend for themselves. So then the biggest disaster of the century comes and the poor are left behind.All of a sudden, the American people were very embarrassed about what happened.All of a sudden, people were embarrassed by the fact that they didn’t really care about the poor— that they had just let them drown. Most people had fled the city, leaving the old, sick, and poor behind.The people who couldn’t move in to the hospitals were just left behind.This was an interesting moment in American history, because all of a sudden it exposed this line of thinking as not compatible with how we want to be. And in fact it’s not compatible with how we are as a species.
BLVR: But when you say that a true understanding of human nature gets us a softer mitigated capitalism, that leads me to believe that if the social Darwinians were right about the inherent selfishness of human beings, they would have been justified in setting up a hard, ruthless capitalism. Do you believe that?
FDW: Imagine that we were exactly as described by social Darwinists or Republicans—selfish, 100 percent incentive driven, that’s all we are.Then there’s really no reason to change society. We can go full-blown at capitalism and free market and see what happens.
BLVR: You really think there would be no reason to resist this even if we were primarily driven by selfish motives? Isn’t it possible that we should care for others just because we think it’s the right thing to do, even though we may not want to do it?
FDW: You think that people will do things that are right, even if they don’t want to?
BLVR: They might… we don’t always do what we want to do.
FDW: I don’t think that people will do that. The fact that the American people were embarrassed by Katrina, or that a large proportion of the American people want improved health care, or to care for the poor, I think is purely because there is a level of empathy. You need to indoctrinate empathy out of people in order to arrive at extreme capitalist positions. And those people who will publicly argue that we don’t need to care about the poor, they will privately, if they have a poor family member, they will take care for that family member. So it’s only other poor people they don’t care about.
BLVR: Of course,it’s still their family,right? As you note, the dark side of our nature is that we favor the interests of our “in-group,” especially the family, although it can be broadened a little.The farther it gets, the less we care about others, the more we’re willing to act violently toward them and neglect them.
FDW: I think that human morality evolved as an ingroup phenomenon, to strengthen the in-group and increase its cohesiveness.This was partly needed for competition with other groups. So what you did to the other groups didn’t matter.You could hack them to pieces, that would be perfectly fine, as long as you don’t hack each other to pieces—within the in-group. And that’s a really interesting thing.The worst side of human nature which is really intergroup violence between religions and between ethnic groups or nations, this side is also linked to the evolution of morality. And that’s also why if people now argue that we need to expand morality and have universal human rights, and that we need to care about people elsewhere in the world, they have a big challenge ahead of them.
BLVR: Can primate research help them take this into account—help them see that we’re not built for caring about people we have no connection with at all?
FDW: Of course, I’m not saying we shouldn’t care. I don’t think primate research offers that kind of moral guideline. All I’m saying is that it will be a challenge. I think as soon as we lose our wealth,the caring we do have for distant out-groups will disappear. Given that we are wealthy as a nation, in that sense, we ought to care about others. But as soon as there’s a crash in our economy, like in the ’20s, say, something really serious, will we still care about distant people? Human caring is predicated upon affordability. Moral obligations to the out-group are not— however much philosophers might wish them to be so4 — independent of moral obligations to the in-group. Our first priority is the survival of ourselves and our close kin. I call this the role of “loyalty”: we have varying degrees of loyalty, and they are just not equal for distant and close people, or for humans and animals, for that matter.
BLVR: You also say that we have a mental switch that when triggered can turn friend into foe. An attack of some kind can trigger this. You said that our reaction to Iraq is perhaps an example of this kind of primitive impulse that you see even in chimpanzees.
FDW: If you hit yourself with a hammer, you’re going to blame someone—anyone. Frustration leads to angry reactions. This is known as the scapegoat effect, which occurs even in rats.You place two rats on an electric grid and shock them: they will attack each other as if the other is to blame for the pain. In primates, we often see that if there are tensions among higher-ups, they pick on a low-ranking individual to attack it. I felt the same happened in the United States after 9/11.A big and mighty country got attacked on its own soil—something it’s not used to—and so someone had to be blamed, someone had to be attacked to let off steam. The target’s actual guilt was a secondary concern. Afghanistan was not big enough for the angry reaction the U.S. wanted to show. What struck me most was the cheerleading in the media. At the moment, everyone is backtracking and questioning the wisdom of the attack, but at the time it happened, all I saw was great enthusiasm.As a result, what is it, five hundred thousand Iraqis are gone? It’s a disaster.
IV. “GOOD OLD PRIMATE DIPLOMACY”
BLVR: Why do you think chimpanzees and bonobos have such different types of existences? They’re such close relatives, genetically speaking, and yet violence and aggression are so common in one species, and harmony and GG-rubbing are so common in the other. What accounts for that difference?
FDW: Well, the leading theory is that bonobos live in a richer environment. They have the whole forest for themselves; they don’t share it with gorillas. (Whereas chimpanzees are in competition with gorillas.) And this permits female bonobos to travel together. Chimpanzee females do not have that same opportunity because in order to gather food they have to travel separately. Oddly enough, that can be the reason for everything. Because if the females can travel together, they can form bonds and coalitions, and a lot of things like female dominance can follow from there.
BLVR: Is there a lesson we can draw from their environmental differences? Should we encourage a kind of society where women can travel together,and with their children—which might lead to a less aggressive dynamic? Or are other social, environmental, behavioral differences too great for this to work…
FDW: That’s the problem.We have such a different past in terms of family building. We are in a situation where the nuclear family is so important, which bonobos don’t have. So I’m not sure how from there you get to some kind of bonobo society where everybody mates with everybody. We have been subject to different evolutionary pressures, which is very difficult to return from.
BLVR: Would it be a fool’s errand to try?
FDW: I think so.We have a social system where there is male investment in offspring.That always means that you get a protection of the investment. So that males have reasons to develop social systems and moral systems that protect the family—emphasizing virginity, emphasizing fidelity, at least for the women, not necessarily for the men, but certainly for the women. Our society is designed around that system. So if we were to move in the direction of the bonobos, we would destroy that system.And that would create other serious problems. The funny thing is that many people look at bonobos as a kind of paragon, the type of situation we want to have— egalitarian relationships, free sex, peaceful. It all sounds very wonderful but I don’t think it’s an option given where we are now.
BLVR: But on the other hand, you do seem to think there’s a lot of cultural variability within our own species. Yes, the genes “hold culture on a leash,” as E. O.Wilson said, but how long is the leash? And how much control do we have over where we go when attached to it?
FDW: There are certain cultures that emphasize harmony. For example, the Japanese culture emphasizes getting along in a way that American culture does not. The emphasis here is more that you have to stick up for yourself—don’t get beaten up by anyone. Beat them up. It’s a very different attitude. I don’t know what triggers a society to move in one direction rather than another direction. But I’m a primatologist, not a sociologist.
BLVR: But you haven’t been shy, though, about imagining ways in which the theories and themes from your work might affect social policy for human beings.
FDW:Well, the only thing I can say is that you will find people (or animals) being more cooperative with each other if you emphasize shared interest.And that’s what, for example, Japanese society does. In this society, you could emphasize shared interest or group interest more, that would be the way to do it. Instead of saying something like “You shouldn’t fight!”
BLVR: So do you think that you’ve learned things as a primatologist that can be applied to human problems? Or is that not something that really interests you?
FDW: No, it is of interest. Because, for example, in the U.S. there are many conflict-resolution programs at schools. They basically tell kids to shake hands after fights and say, “I’m sorry.” That’s not going to do anything to resolve the real conflict. Of course kids are smart enough to learn that that’s what the teacher wants, so that’s what they’re going to do. But you’re not changing the attitudes. What you need to do is teach them that there is value in relationships or value to the group and then the rest will follow.There will be fewer fights, less conflict. And there are great social psychology experiments to back this up. If you create competition between groups, you’ll find higher social cohesiveness within the groups.The same thing happens to nations. A nation at war, like the U.S. was a couple of years ago, is a more cohesive nation.So those kind of lessons to me are pretty obvious.
BLVR: This reminds me of your discussion of sex differences too. One of the things you talk about is how males—and you see this in humans and chimpanzees— will fight more often but they are much better at conflict resolution.Whereas females don’t fight as often, but when they do, it’s for keeps.There’s no resolution.
FDW: That’s sometimes controversial, because people always assume women are more peaceful than men.Which in many senses is true. Look at the murder rate. But I do believe that women are not nearly as good at conflict resolution, and that’s why they try much harder to avoid conflict.And they’re often successful. But when the conflict surfaces….
BLVR: Women hold grudges.
FDW: Yes, often there is no resolution.A lot of women, especially intellectual women, can’t stand that idea. They’ve grown up on the view that women are good and men are bad. What men do is compete and fight— and that’s all they can do. But it’s actually, who was it, Golda Meir, I don’t know, a female politician said something to the effect that “it’s good that men wage war, because it’s only men who can make peace.”
BLVR: In other words, Obama ’08?
FDW: Remember, I’m not voting.5 But if you want my opinion, what the U.S. needs most at this point is a leader who understands that this country, however important, has only 5 percent of the world population. You’re as much caught in the web of international affairs and global economy as anyone else, so instead of trying to play the bully—without much success, I might add—you’d be better off with good old primate diplomacy.What you need is a groomer-in-chief.