Frans de Waal on Primate Behavior

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HK; Today I’m going to talk with Frans de Waal, who is a professor of primate behaviour at Emory University. Thank you so much for your time. First let me ask about why you started studying ethology.

FDW; Well, I’ve always been interested in animals since when I was very young. I’m interested, basically, in all animals even though I study primates most of the time. And there is so little being done on animal behaviour compared to what science does on human behaviour. There are thousands of people who work on human behaviour. So there’s a great need to know more about animals and that is my passion.

HK; What is the most important lesson you have learned from animals?

FDW; Well, I think the lesson that we’re learning at the moment is they’re more sophisticated intellectually than people assume. There are many scientists who study, let’s say, elephants or chimpanzees in the field and then there are ever more experimental studies that show animals to be very smart. For example, recently there was a study that came out of Kyoto University that showed that the short-term memory of chimpanzees is actually better than that of humans. That kind of finding offers a different image of animals than we used to have.

See also here.

HK; That’s very interesting. What is the most difficult thing, or obstacle during your research on animals?

FDW; Well, I think the most difficult was and still is the fact that there is a school known as “Behaviourism” which is a school that came from Skinner and people like him who worked on rats and pigeons, who tried to reduce everything that animals do to conditioning. Meaning that everything is regulated by reward and punishment and that’s the focus they have. And it’s not wrong, I mean, there’s nothing wrong with this theory, except if one thinks it can explain everything under the sun. So, the problem for people in my field of animal behavior is always to fight with behaviourists who don’t want us to talk about emotions, they don’t want us to talk about mental processes. They want to reduce everything to reward and punishment. I think that has been a struggle, but it’s disappearing because behaviourism is disappearing slowly.

HK; Recently you wrote a book entitled The Age of Empathy. Can I ask first, why did you write this book?

FDW; I think empathy is an aspect of animal behaviour that’s understudied. We all know, of course, everyone who has a dog knows that they are sensitive to our emotions and they react to our emotions and we react to their emotions. That’s the sort of contact that we don’t have with fish and don’t have with a turtle, but we have it with a dog. So everyone knows that mammals are emotionally connected, like dogs and cats, and that’s why we have them in the house. They are sensitive in emotional situations. But no-one was talking much about that and empathy in animals was a totally neglected area partly because of the existing taboo on emotions in animals. There’s a great continuity between human and animal empathy to be emphasised. So my book, The Age of Empathy, stresses continuity by talking about elephants and chimpanzees and monkeys and all sorts of animals and explains how their behaviour relates to human empathy.

HK; While there is much human empathy, I presume there are many social conflicts between humans. Do you have any advice for human beings about how to understand each other?

FDW; There’s both advice and warning I think. The warning is that empathy in animals and I think also in humans is such an in-group phenomenon. We have a lot more empathy for members of our own group and for family members and individuals who are close to us. This is true for chimpanzees and this is true for humans that empathy is biased. And so to get cooperation within the group, that’s all possible. Many animals are very good at that and humans are very good at that. Of course, we now live in a world that is much bigger than just a group. We live in societies of millions of people or cities of millions of people. Having the same capacity for cooperation and empathy in that kind of environment is much more difficult. So, that’s the thing we need to work on if we want to build a world that is really global and where everything is connected to everything is to reach out to groups that are not necessarily our own group.

HK; Can I ask what is the most fundamental difference between human and animal?

FDW; I think the difference is probably in the language capacity that we have; even though we can teach apes some sign language and they can understand some words, they don’t really have language the way we do. Language is not a small capacity, language is a very big capacity because it affects everything we do, labelling things and organising things in a particular way. So language is something; our means of communication. Of course, communication is not uniquely done by humans, because many animals are capable of communication. But language allows us to organise the world in a way that I don’t think animals do.

HK; As my research is on the law of success, I want to ask you your definition of success.

FDW; Of what?

IV; Success. The term success.

FDW Success… The typical definition in biology, of course, is reproductive success. Because we think everything evolves because it leads to reproduction. So all your characteristics and all my characteristics come from ancestors who reproduced. Ancestors who did not reproduce, they don’t go anywhere in terms of their genetic material. In biology, usually success is defined that you’re able to survive and you’re able to reproduce. Within a society of primates, things are often more complicated, just as much in human societies that you may have individuals who are quite successful in this whole system, but who are not necessarily reproducing. So there are many characteristics that make it possible for you to even reach a high position; there are certain social goals that you may achieve. When people talk about success, we usually take a much broader view than the biologist. We don’t say just reproduction or survival. We also see how you are doing in society. Are you able to manipulate others? Are you able to get what you want? Are you able to have a successful life? and so on.

HK; In the 21st century, we human beings take for granted about surviving, of course there are many countries in poverty but in general. Do you think human beings will find another meaning of life?

FDW; That’s a very difficult topic just to say what is the meaning of life. Biologists don’t really have an answer for that. The interesting thing is that some biologists have recently written against religion and against a belief in God. Yet, they do not contribute a true alternative to the meaning of life debate. The only alternative we have is to talk about evolution and how we came into existence. But how we came into existence is not the same as what is the meaning of life. Science doesn’t have an answer for your question of the meaning of life. That’s a question that needs to be answered by people in their society, by philsophers, or by religious leaders.

HK; The final question; can I ask your advice to achieve success?
In a general sense in human life.

FDW; In human life. I don’t know if you ask me that, that it’s more like a personal question, that’s not really a question about science.

HK; Hahaha, yes this is really a personal question.

FDW; What I usually, because I’m a professor and I work with many young people, my personal feeling is you need to do what you want to do. You should not pick a profession just because there’s money in it or a profession because your father is in it, those are not good reasons. You need to find a profession in something that you really love to do. Then the rest will follow automatically. If you are fascinated in something and, let’s say, you love computers then you work with computers, and you may become like Bill Gates.

HK; Hahaha

FDW; It’s very simple. But do what you want to do. And I think that’s my general advice for young people; you need to find something that you’re passionate about and the rest will follow from there.

HK; Thank you so much.

*For his books, please go here.

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