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Intersections at WID: Primatologist Frans de Waal on the Science of Cooperation and Empathy

Renowned primatologist Frans de Waal stopped by our Institute to share his latest thinking on the roots of morality.

Chimpanzee photo from Thinkstock


Primatologist, researcher and author Frans de Waal, currently the C.H. Candler Professor of Primate Behavior at Emory University and former UW–Madison researcher, has authored numerous popular books on non-human primate behavior and research, including his recent work The Bonobo and the Atheist, which examines the evolutionary roots of morality through observations and research on animal behavior. De Waal stopped by the Institute to visit colleagues Jessica Flack and David Krakauer and give a Very Informal Seminar talk for the Center for Complexity and Collective Computation (C4), a research group in WID.

What led you to examine the roots of morality in non-human primates?

Before working with chimpanzees, I started studying rhesus macaques and aggression because that was the only topic people were interested in at the time. What I found in the macaques was that 95 percent of the time they had no aggression — they were just sitting around and playing and grooming and having sex. I became interested in how that’s possible: how they maintained a harmonious group life despite occasional aggression. When I looked at the same thing in chimpanzees, I realized they have reconciliation after fights — they kiss and embrace and it turned out to be the same solution for macaques.

I became very interested in the power struggles, but I got more interested in the positive side of their behavior, and how one repairs relationships and things like that. Reconciliation was a discovery. I saw a fight, and then 10 minutes later I saw the two individuals that were in the fight hugging and kissing, and then it sort of clicked in my mind that this is what we call “reconciliation” in humans.

Frans de Waal

Frans De Waal

I had also documented what I called “chimpanzees consolation,” where one individual is distressed and others come over and groom and kiss and those kind of things, and I never made much of that until I went to a lecture by Carolyn Zahn-Waxler, who explained how she studied empathy in children. She would ask a family member to cry and say, “I’m sick,” and cough, and see how young children would react. The young children would touch them and stroke them and kiss them. Zahn-Waxler called that an expression of “empathy,” or “sympathetic concern.” And I said, “If that’s empathy, then I see lots of empathy in my chimpanzees.” I had never attached that label to it, but then I got interested in that side of it.

What were the initial reactions to your findings?

The first reaction of some scientists was hostility. My interest in reconciliation and empathy were not really seen as something that animals might have, and cognition by itself was already a controversial issue because in the 1970s some people wanted to reduce chimpanzees to rats that learn by trial and error, which is not really how chimpanzees are. It is probably not even how rats are. At the moment, people are much more open than they were 25 years ago to a comparison between humans and apes, or even talking about emotions in animals.

You observed moral behaviors in non-human primates that were thought to just be unique to humans — what implications does this have?

Some people interpret this as questioning whether we need God to be moral. That question is too big, and there’s no yes or no answer to it. So even though I believe you can be perfectly moral without believing in God, that’s not to say that religion is irrelevant or doesn’t have a role to play. I think human morality makes use of certain psychological mechanisms like empathy and sympathy and compassion and sense of fairness, and all those kinds of psychological tendencies that we have, which are not all uniquely human.

“Reconciliation was a discovery. I saw a fight, and then 10 minutes later I saw the two individuals that were in the fight hugging and kissing, and then it sort of clicked in my mind that this is what we call ‘reconciliation’ in humans”

— Frans de Waal

So for me, it’s a question of continuity. We would not necessarily call a chimpanzee a moral being, but in the moral domain there are these continuities where you see some of the tendencies that we use in a moral system present in other animals. And that was the view of Darwin also, who long ago wrote that if an animal with social tendencies like ours would become equally intelligent, they would have a moral system. He felt there was continuity. 

How does evidence for these behaviors and emotions in non-human primates shape our understanding of humans in the past?

I think our psychological tendencies make us moral, and most likely before we had the current religions, which are only a couple thousand of years old, we had moral systems in place when we lived in small-scale societies. Many of the small-scale human societies don’t have these overwhelming religions that we have nowadays. They believe in the supernatural and follow religious rituals, but don’t have a moralizing God who punishes them if they do things wrong. I think our ancestors had moral systems long before we had the kinds of religions that we have today, which shows we don’t need religion to be moral.

There’s a book now where they review all of the religions in the world, and the larger to society, the more domineering these religions get. But in small-scale societies the gods don’t occupy themselves much with morality. They’re more there to explain certain natural phenomena or to pray to when you go hunting and things of that nature. The thinking of some people is that when societies got bigger, we needed bigger religions and more dominant religions that allowed us to have a moral system even if the society got that large. Because in a small-scale society, it’s a bit like a chimpanzee groups, everyone knows everyone, and so if you misbehave on a regular basis, we know that that’s you and we can kick you out or kill you, or punish you at least to get you to behave better. But in a large and anonymous society, that system doesn’t really work, because you run constantly into people you don’t know. To install an omniscient God, who sees everything, is helpful under these circumstances.

Are there new directions for your research that further explore morality?

At the moment, we’re doing research I’m excited about, which is having chimpanzees do a cooperative task in a group setting. Most of the time when people do cooperative studies on apes, they bring them into a room — usually two of them with an apparatus from which they can get food — and then you sort of force them into cooperation because the only way to get food is from working together. But the problem there is that you decided which two individuals are going to work together and there’s basically nothing else you have to do for them. We wanted to set up a situation in a compound where 15 chimps live, so they have to work together and they have to decide which two are going to work together and deal with the competition, because there’s always going to be individuals who try to steal the food or freeload on the workers, so they will have to deal with all of that.

In the literature, people are very pessimistic about chimpanzees — they say only humans can overcome competition in an active way, only humans punish freeloaders. But we found that chimpanzees are also perfect at handling that situation. Like us, they may think, “If you freeload all the time, I’m going to avoid you; I’m not going to work with you.” At the moment, I’m interested in the history of animal cognition and the idea that it takes a lot of imagination for humans to understand how intelligent other animals are. There is an openness now — people are more open to talking about cognition in animals and basically every week we see stories coming out in the media showing that crows recognize human faces or octopi use tools and so on. I think we’re in this phase where we’re more open-minded about these things, and we need the creativity to understand them.

Interview conducted and edited by Marianne Spoon

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