Dr. Frans de Waal, one of the world’s leading primatologists, is rare among scholars — both an accomplished researcher and an excellent communicator. In numerous books and articles he has vastly broadened what we know about primate societies, and this knowledge has in turn shed much needed light on human societies. His ability to draw credible links from one to the other has made his work indispensable across multiple disciplines.
Dr. de Waal’s new book, The Age of Empathy, will come out this year from Harmony Books. He was gracious enough to make some time to discuss primate emotions, whether nature can produce morality, and the persistent belief in the nature/culture divide with Neuronarrative.
You’ve done a great deal of work to dispel the notion of a “nature/culture” divide. What is the argument endorsing this alleged divide, and why in your view is it flawed?
The problem is that if all human societies have culture — and they do — it is a product of human nature, so can’t be truly separated from it. We are born with a capacity for culture and to absorb all of the cultural habits and values around us. In addition, there is the issue that other primates also have cultural traditions.
There is more and more evidence that groups of the same species may act quite differently from each other, having different eating habits, communication signals, and tools, which behavior they hand down from generation to generation. We now openly speak of primate cultures, but the phenomenon is not limited to our near relatives, but found in tons of mammals and birds, even fish. This is another reason to question the nature/culture divide.
You’ve also been heavily involved in correcting the misconception (which dates back to T. H. Huxley) that nature is inherently “amoral” and could never result in morality. What have you discovered in your primate research that might be considered evidence of rudiments of primate morality?
Huxley believed, as do still many biologists today, that the human animal is inherently bad and nasty, and that if any good is produced by us, it is thanks to a thin veneer of culture and morality. This veneer is of our own making. Darwin didn’t see it this way, and believed, like I do, that the tendencies that underpin our moral systems derive from old social instincts that we share with other primates.
We’re not the only ones to occasionally help each other, be sensitive to other’s emotions, or be sensitive to fairness. We recently published an experiment, for example, in which primates either got rewarded without any reward for a companion next to them or get rewarded while the partner got the same. So, the only difference was what the partner got. They systematically preferred the latter option, thus showing sensitivity to the welfare of others. In fact, I believe that giving is self-rewarding for them, as we know it is for humans.
Along the same lines, do primates show evidence of having ‘moral emotions,’ such as empathy, compassion and generosity? (those emotions that we typically only associate with human morality.)
Empathy is a very old mammalian characteristic. Of course, if it is defined top-down, as often done in psychology, it involves cognitive perspective taking (adopting another’s point of view) that is probably limited to a few large-brained species, such as humans, apes, and elephants. But if we define it bottom up, by its most basic ingredients, empathy is being in tune with the emotions of others, such as contagious fear, distress, or joy. Emotional contagion has recently been demonstrated in mice, and I believe it originally derives from maternal care, which is obligatory in the mammals, since every female needs to immediately react to offspring that is hungry, cold, in danger, etcetera. This origin may also explain the empathy differences between males and females in our species.
But apes go further than this. Not only are they affected by the emotions of others, they show strong reactions. For example, they console victims of aggression. The victim sits screaming in a corner, and others approach, embrace and kiss them, or groom them for the longest time, until they have calmed down. This is the same sort of behavior that psychologist have used to study empathy in young children, and I always feel that similar behavior in closely related species deserves similar labels and explanations. The warnings that I often hear against “anthropomorphism” strike me as reflective of a pre-Darwinian mind-set, because clearly mental continuity is the simpler assumption.
I know that you were one of the principal researchers involved in the now famous “grape / cucumber” study. Briefly, how was this study conducted and what did you discover?
With Sarah Brosnan, we gave monkeys different rewards for the same task. If they get the same reward everything is fine and dandy, and no one complains, even if they just get cucumber. But if their companion gets grapes for the same task, all hell breaks loose and they refuse to perform the task, and often refuse the food itself.
I was reminded of this during the recent outcry in the media about the CEO’s of the car industry who had flown to Washington in private jets. We humans are very sensitive to inequity, and now that we are going through some rough times, these feelings surface very easily. The CEO’s were munching on grapes, whereas all of us have to content ourselves with cucumber.
I’ve been intrigued by recent research on self-awareness in animals (primates and other species). In what ways are the results of this research challenging our preconceptions about the natural world and our relationship to other animal species?
Self-consciousness needs to be part of every animal’s interaction with its environment. If you’re a monkey, you want to be aware of how your body will impact a lower branch that you intend to jump on, based on the thickness of the branch, the distance of the jump, and your body mass. This kind of self awareness is everywhere, but some species go further in that they recognize themselves in a mirror, or have a full understanding of how their own behavior will affect the situation of others. We are learning more and more about these various levels of self awareness, and this obviously brings animals closer to us than in the days that everything animals did was explained in Cartesian, mechanistic terms.
Moving forward, what do you think the next round of new (or continuing) primate research may tell us about ourselves and our relationship to primates? Are we in for a continued eye opening?
Our field will keep eroding the human-animal distinction even though many people crave such a distinction. Every few years a new one comes up. It used to be tool-use, followed by the making of tools, then symbol-use, theory-of-mind, imitation, altruism, you name it. Every distinction has fallen by the wayside, and I am sure that soon another one will be proposed. We welcome these challenges. The basic message from our field is that differences may well exist, but they are invariably gradual.
Dr. Frans de Waal is the C. H. Candler Professor of Psychology. Director Living Links, part of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University, Atlanta.
Link to Living Links