“What could be more dignified than primates who use their natural gifts to build a humane society?” ( Frans de Waal)
Frans de Waal is a celebrated primatologist who manages to live in two worlds – as a serious researcher who has devoted nearly 40 years to the study of primate behavior and social intelligence, and as an author-communicator, with some dozen popular books that inform and illuminate the parallels between human and primate behavior. He shares the small space occupied by a few other brilliant scientist-writers, namely Edward O. Wilson of Harvard, whose field is ants, and the late paleontologist Stephen J. Gould of the American Museum of Natural History. Their common inheritance: deeply inquisitive minds, a wide range of thinking, matched by an exceptional knack for public communication. Check out de Waal’s TED talk.
De Waal has conducted primate and other animal research in in many venues –zoos, research parks and in the field —but it’s never been a more crucial time for humankind to benefit from what he’s learned about why our closest relatives on the primate tree – in both DNA and behavior – have more value to us alive, than as bushmeat or populations drifting toward extinction.
In his first book Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes, published in 1982 – and reissued 25 years later – De Waal jumpstarted his prolific career by looking at power struggles of primates and comparing them with humans: he discovered they are remarkably like us.
De Waal recalls: “At thirty-two years old, I was risking my career ascribing Machiavellian tactics to animals. I had been trained to avoid any talk of intentions or emotions in my subjects. Animals were to be described as soul-less machines.”
The parallels between primate and human behavior didn’t stop there. His studies have explored cooperation, selfishness, aggression, empathy, reciprocity, inequality and fairness —all of which we define as human traits, but are proven to exist, based on extensive observation and testing, in primates and some other animals, such as elephants.
DeWaal’s major discovery of reconciliation among primates came with his study of bonobos, and the females’ use of sex to defuse situations, a trait that we might jokingly call the “make love not war” phenomenon.
De Waal started his career in his native Holland, where he studied biology, then began his primate research at Arnhem’s Burger Zoo where there was an island colony of 25 chimps who provided ample material for his first book.
He moved to the United States, in 1981 and has been at Emory University (Atlanta) since 1991, now as C. H. Candler Professor in the Psychology Department, as well as director of the Living Links National Primate Research Center. Time Magazine named him one of the 100 Most Influential People on the planet.
His just-released book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? investigates how other animals, including octopuses, birds, even insects, can be adept at solving problems. A recent essay in The New York Times is adapted from the new book.
Here’s a partial list of his books: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?; The Age of Empathy (Harmony 2009); Our Inner Ape (Riverhead 2005); Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape (1997) with photography by Frans Lanting; Peacemaking Among Primates (1989); Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes (1982) Link to all of his books