An Interview with Frans de Waal

Under the veil of a rainy night in Thailand, two elephants were walking together, when one of them suddenly slipped and fell into the mud. Unable to get up, the other elephant, unrelated to the fallen companion, stayed with her for the majority of the night.

The next day, the mahouts from the wildlife reserve arrived in order to help the elephant up with braces and ropes.

As the crowd gathered around the rescue, the younger elephant refused to be separated from her friend, and instead, she buried her head underneath the body and tried to lift her up.

The elephant seemed to understand the mahouts’ intentions, timing her pushes with the hoisting of the mahouts. Despite the risk of injury, she kept trying until the older elephant was back on her feet.

It was not long ago that biologists believed complex behavior, with a moral element, to be exclusive to humans. Frans de Waal, a primatologist, has greatly contributed to shifting this perception.

His book, Chimpanzee Politics, which is a narrative of the intrigues and plots of a chimpanzee group in the Arnhem Zoo, combined with his subsequent works Good Natured and Our Inner Ape, demonstrate the striking similarities between humans and primates.

De Waal’s research has gone further than just describing behavior, though; he has also gone into the mostly forbidden field of animal emotions, despite the risk of being labeled as “anthropomorphizing”.

His work has accumulated a great deal of proof that other species have moral emotions, too.

The research of de Waal does not favor the idea of human superiority. Similarly to Galileo and Darwin, he challenges the notion of a clear cut division between human beings and everything else.

Nonetheless, his outlook is positive. If human morality has its origins in our evolutionary past, then it is more likely to be enduring and less likely to be affected by temporary circumstances.

This viewpoint also counters the perception of humans as fundamentally selfish, known as the “veneer theory”.

To elaborate on this concept, de Waal has written his most recent book, Primates and Philosophers, based on his lectures at Princeton University, and featuring the input of four prominent philosophers and authors.

I was welcomed to the Primate Center by de Waal and given apples to feed the chimps.

After the interview, Josh Plotkin, one of his graduate students, showed me a video of his work in Thailand, which included an elephant rescue attempt.

Later that evening, I was invited to de Waal’s house for dinner, where I heard his wife Catherine’s hitchhiking stories, and it ended with a glass of “the cognac of tequilas.” The interview took place at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, not far from Atlanta.

Tamler Sommers has suggested that it is important to remember that morality is not an absolute concept. Instead, it is something that is constantly changing, and therefore, people’s views on morality will differ depending on their context and experience.


The Believer inquired about discussing my work with chimpanzees, yet began by bringing up bonobos- the closest primate relative to chimps.

I have always been praised for my accounts of bonobos, referring to them as the “hippie ape” and describing some of their activities as “orgies.”

People have a general understanding of them as peaceful, free-loving, and equal animals, thus one might assume they would be the stars of the animal kingdom. However, I have dubbed them “the forgotten ape.” Why has this been the case?

FRANS DE WAAL: The first discovery of this type of ape was the chimpanzee, known since the seventeenth century. However, they were all called chimpanzees, leading to the belated discovery of bonobos.

This was also due to the lack of fieldwork and captive studies. Moreover, the bonobos’ story did not fit with the existing thinking.

BLVR: What thought process is that?

FDW: After the conclusion of World War II, the collective thought was that humans are an aggressive species, which is understandable.

However, this thought process developed into an obsession, with people questioning if aggression was an instinctive trait or something that was learned.

One group, mainly comprised of biologists, believed that aggression was innate whereas a group of anthropologists used chimpanzees as an example to suggest that our ancestors were peaceful and aggression was something which had been taught.

BLVR: That might be a reassuring idea.

In the 1970s, when reports of chimpanzees attacking each other and monkeys were published, any counterarguments from biologists were disregarded. It was seen as the final evidence that humans are naturally aggressive, mean and selfish.

The chimpanzee then became a representation for the human race, and people started to believe that humans had been aggressive for millions of years, and that the ape was the source of this behaviour.

Finally, the bonobos arrived.

The emergence of behavioral data in the ’80s on bonobos presented a challenge to the new picture of human evolution. Even now, there are still scholars who contend that the last common ancestor of humans was more similar to chimpanzees.

However, genetically, bonobos are just as distant from us as chimps are. The only reason for this claim is the ideological notion that bonobos do not fit the idea of humans as innately aggressive.

BLVR’s views fit in with traditional ideas.

In regards to the question of whether or not human beings are an inherently aggressive species, FDW believes that the bonobo can be seen as either problematic or an interesting example, depending on the perspective.

Personally, FDW does not know which one accurately reflects our own nature, as they believe humans have both aggressive and cooperative characteristics.

What are some of the ways bonobos stand out from the general stereotype of being aggressive and combative?

In the case of bonobos, there is no evidence from either the field or from captivity studies that they kill each other. This has been observed multiple times in other primates, such as chimpanzees, but has not been seen in bonobos.

They are known for being more peaceful and friendly. Although, they do still exhibit aggressive behavior, but never to the point of killing. Additionally, female bonobos are known for dominating the males, which helps to reduce aggression.

This behaviour does not fit in with the theories of many male scientists. It is also a species which is highly sexual, which likely plays a role in the prevention of aggression.

BLVR: Our Inner Ape contains a humorous anecdote about a lecture you gave, in which you discussed the male bonobos’ inability to compete and assume superiority over the females. An individual in the crowd inquired: “What’s wrong with these male bonobos?”

FDW: As expected, there are a lot of male scientists who have a negative response to bonobos. They are seen as being too tranquil and female-dominated, a trait that humans may not be able to accept.

I don’t think that our predecessors were female-led, but if our last shared ancestor was female-dominated, that would open up a lot of questions that would need to be answered. It’s always important to address facts that might be contrary to certain theories, rather than ignore them.

BLVR: I found it interesting that you mentioned in one of your books that male bonobos live a pretty good life. They are sexually liberated and experience a carefree lifestyle…

Evidence demonstrates that, in chimpanzee groups, there are twice as many adult females compared to males. In contrast, bonobo groups contain an equal number of males and females.

As both species have a fifty-fifty birth ratio, this implies that many male chimpanzees are dying young. This could be because of the high levels of conflict, stress, and other tensions in their environment. Therefore, male bonobos have a much better life expectancy than their chimpanzee counterparts.

At our parties, if they’re a success, whenever someone thumbs through The Forgotten Ape, they always end up pointing out the GG-rubbing photos of the female bonobos. That’s why I had to bring the subject up.

FDW: [Laughing] Is that so? Such as having a Playboy magazine on the coffee table?

BLVR inquires, “What is the purpose of GG-rubbing, and why do female bonobos participate in it so frequently? It’s such an intriguing act and the name Primate Playboy draws attention. Can you explain what GG-rubbing is exactly?”

Female bonobos have a behavior known as GG-rubbing, where they cling to each other similarly to a mother and child. This entails a sexual interaction in which their genitals are rubbed together. In the United States, there is a general shyness surrounding sex, which is why many researchers in the country prefer to refer to it as “affiliation” or “friendly” rather than sex.

BLVR: The atmosphere appears to be very inviting.

The term “sex” has been widely discussed when the Paula Jones case came to light in the United States. In an effort to settle the dispute, the court declared that sex is any contact involving the genitals.

This means that GG-rubbing, which involves the rubbing of the genitals and clitorises together, is officially considered sex. I use this argument if anyone disagrees.

In addition to resolving conflicts, GG-rubbing is also a form of greeting and is used to promote bonding between females. This is an incredibly powerful political tool as female bonobos are not able to dominate males without collective support. GG-rubbing is essentially a political tool.


BLVR: Recently, you have been attempting to counter another wrong notion–that morality is solely a human fabrication, a concept that developed after we diverged from other apes. Do you consider apes and bonobos to be moral creatures? Do they demonstrate moral conduct?

When it comes to moral behavior, I don’t personally refer to it as such. Rather, I believe it to be more like the fundamental building blocks that are necessary for morality.

I don’t think chimpanzees possess morality in the same way humans do, however they do demonstrate certain traits such as empathy, sympathy and reciprocity. Even more so, they are known to share food and resolve conflicts.

Therefore, I argue that the psychological makeup of great apes is a critical component of human morality. Humans are capable of taking this a step further, thus making our morality far more intricate, which is why I wouldn’t describe chimpanzees as moral beings.

BLVR: Why do you pause when you think that chimpanzees possess feelings that are akin to gratitude and empathy, and maybe even anger, emotions that are typically considered to be moral?

FDW believes that the great apes possess moral emotions such as gratitude and outrage, which is essential for morality. Furthermore, he considers empathy to be an essential component for humans to have morality.

He then goes on to explain that this is where the ‘impartial spectator’ comes in, as humans have the ability to look at a situation and make a judgment on it, even if it doesn’t affect them. Chimpanzees have the capacity to have opinions on how they interact with others, and how they are treated, but FDW is unsure whether they have the capacity to make judgements on more abstract interactions, and have a concept of what kind of society they want to live in.

He believes that humans possess a kind of moral reasoning which is absent in chimpanzees.

BLVR: If I’m mistaken, then please let me know. However, I recall reading in Chimpanzee Politics and some other sources that when a chimpanzee mistreats another, other chimps do respond with a form of righteous indignation and may even punish the wrongdoer.

FDW: Affirmative, absolutely.

BLVR queried if that would be considered a valid point.

The FDW stated that there are likely to be examples of morality among chimpanzees, however it is likely to be a self-centred one as the chimpanzees are never impartial observers; they are surrounded by those that are their friends, relatives and rivals, and so their interactions will affect them.

BLVR: Could you provide some illustrations of empathetic behaviors seen in other species?

FDW: So, you observed the aged [chimpanzee] female Peony today, who struggled to ascend the climb bars, is that right?

BLVR affirmed in the affirmative.

In my writings, I often refer to instances of altruistic behaviour among young female chimpanzees, such as pushing an elder up onto a climber. It’s difficult to think that this was done with the expectation of receiving a reward.

My work also contains plenty of examples of sophisticated empathetic conduct, which necessitates the capacity to understand the perspective of other chimps and is known as “theory of mind”.

BLVR asked if Penny’s helper chimp was able to comprehend her difficulty in climbing the bars. Did the young primate understand her frustration and attempt to empathize by imagining what it would be like to not be able to scale the bars independently?

FDW commented that for the young chimp, it is crucial to recognize Penny’s ambitions and the difficulties she is facing in achieving them.

This is an intricate task. In humans, research suggests that perspective-taking necessitates a strong sense of self-identity, and this is why it starts to appear in children at two years of age, when they become aware of themselves in a mirror. To see if this is the same for chimps and elephants, mirror recognition experiments were conducted, as these animals have a reputation for being generous and possess big brains, leading to the assumption that more elaborate empathy based on perspective-taking is linked to mirror recognition.

BLVR: During a lecture from Yale biologist Laurie Santos about “theory of mind” capabilities in monkeys, there was a very engaging question/answer period. People were raising their hands to suggest alternate explanations for her findings–even some that were very far-fetched.

This deep skepticism came as a shock to me; I thought it was obvious that animals can consider the viewpoint of other creatures. Nonetheless, it was clear that this was not the widespread view among biologists.

FDW states that the idea of Theory of Mind being a uniquely human feature is a recent bias and was only popularized in the 1980s. Previously, during the 1970s, experiments with chimpanzees had shown that they had this ability but the findings didn’t gain much attention.

He goes on to say that this is not a new phenomenon, as there is a long history going back to even before Darwin, of certain features being thought of as only human.

However, many of these features have been found to exist in other species, such as with the small bone in our jaw and the ability to use tools, until Jane Goodall discovered tool use by chimpanzees. Theory of mind was then seen as the big differentiator, but now it is crumbling.

Recent evidence suggests that the ability to consider things from another’s point of view is not only limited to primates, but may extend to canines and potentially even some avian species.

BLVR: I had a feeling that dogs have it!

It has been discovered that perspective-taking is present to some degree in dogs, ravens, and goats. While it appears to be heightened in animals with larger brains, like dolphins, elephants and chimpanzees, it is still present in other animals.

Humans may have the most advanced perspective-taking capabilities on the continuum, but the knowledge that other animals possess it too can be unsettling to some people.

BLVR: In Primates and Philosophers, you dispute the idea that humans are not moral and that morality is only a superficial layer of behavior. You suggest that this belief is mistaken because of the relationship between our ethical values and animal feelings.

FDW: My job is essentially the same as Darwin’s: to view human morality as a result of primate sociality. This is similar to the Humean position and Adam Smith’s moral sentimentalism – the idea that emotions form the basis of morality. In the last thirty years, this has been disregarded.

People like Richard Dawkins, Robert Wright, Michael Ghiselin, and T. H. Huxley all believe evolution cannot generate morality as it creates only selfish and hostile behaviour.

This opinion is seen as being connected to Darwin, but if you read The Descent of Man it’s clear that he didn’t share this view. It’s a misunderstanding of how evolution works as it is a brutal process, but its end product can be quite variable.

Animals can remain independent or be highly cooperative, kind and empathetic. Empathy is often seen as a skill we have to learn, but the research on neuroscience implies it is an instinctual reaction.

To illustrate this, when something terrible is about to take place in a movie theater, everyone is moved by it – they can’t even restrain their empathy.

BLVR: They cover their eyes with a swift motion of their hands.

FDW: Yes, we block images because our reaction to empathy is so strong that we have no control over it. This is a trait that is not just exclusive to humans, but has been observed in other mammals as well.

A paper recently came up regarding the empathy of mice, further proving that it is a very ancient characteristic. In my books, Good Natured and Primates and Philosophers, I dispute the notion that we must start from zero when it comes to morality.

I do recognize that culture does have an influence on human morality, but I do not believe it is the sole origin of it.

BLVR: Our moral emotions, as essential to our being as the more self-centered impulses, were what we initially focused on.

Without a doubt, that is correct.

In your publication, you refer to the “veneer theory” as the consequence of what you call “Beethoven’s error.” Can you explain what that entails?

The “Beethoven error” is the misunderstanding between process and outcome that I was referring to.

Dawkins popularized the notion in the 1970s that selection happened at the gene level, which caused everyone to focus on the selection process and overlook the beauty it can create.

Dawkins and others sought to provide “shock therapy” to social scientists and philosophers, believing that when people act kindly to each other there must be a hidden selfish motive.

This conception of process vs. outcome can be illustrated through Beethoven’s work. Despite his chaotic, dirty environment, Beethoven composed beautiful music.

Similarly, a Chinese restaurant’s kitchen might not be particularly appetizing but the food

produced is delicious. Natural selection, too, has the potential to produce something beautiful

like genuine empathy.


BLVR: We can now discuss a more philosophical issue. Your standpoint is that it’s possible to take moral lessons from the actions of primates nowadays.

What knowledge can we gain from the behavior of chimps and other primates that can be applied to our own deeds? How can we make claims as to how we should act based on these observations?

It’s not certain if we can obtain it directly. FDW

BLVR: Alright then, what can be learned from primate studies that can be applied to how we conduct ourselves and design our organizations?

Beginning with the premise that humans are entirely driven by selfish motives, and that Americans are particularly prone to this, a conservative mindset is often the result.

This often includes the idea that individuals should be allowed to fend for themselves and either improve or “die off” as part of a social Darwinist viewpoint.

This is seen as being consistent with nature such as in the case of free-market capitalism, which is likened to a Darwinian jungle. However, research from the field of behavioral economics suggests that humans are not only motivated by their own interests.

Even with economic decisions, social influences are at work. With a greater understanding of human nature, as well as that of our closest primate relatives, it becomes clear that free-market capitalism needs to be supplemented with social considerations.

This could result in a more softened version of capitalism that still allows for a free market, but also ensures that the poor are cared for and that there is a sense of reciprocity between individuals.

BLVR: However, I am still not comprehending how you arrive at the conclusion that mitigated capitalism is the way to go.

FDW: Hurricane Katrina in the U.S. highlighted the ideology that the poor can take care of themselves. However, when the greatest disaster of the century struck, it became clear that the country had not made provisions for the elderly, ill, and destitute.

This was a telling moment in American history as it exposed the thinking as being incompatible with how we want to be and, in reality, how we are as a species.

BLVR: So, if I’m to understand correctly, if the social Darwinian view of inherent selfishness in human beings is accurate, then a hard, oppressive capitalism would be justified. Is that what you’re saying?

FDW: Suppose we were all as the social Darwinists and Republicans characterize us to be–self-centered and motivated by incentives alone. Then, there would be no need to modify society.

We could just let capitalism and the free market run its course and observe what transpires.

BLVR: Is it not possible that we should act in an altruistic manner despite being primarily driven by selfish motives? Do we not have a moral obligation to care for others, even if we do not feel inclined to do so?

Do you believe that people will act in accordance with the moral standards, even when it is not something that they desire?

BLVR: Our actions do not always align with our desires.

FDW: It is unlikely that individuals would act in this way.

The fact that the majority of Americans felt ashamed of the Katrina disaster, or that a majority of Americans wish to have better healthcare, or to care for the less fortunate, is likely due to the capacity for empathy that we possess.

In order to adopt radical capitalist beliefs, one would have to extinguish their empathy. Those who may argue against providing assistance to the disadvantaged will often make an exception if the needy person is a part of their own family.

It appears that it is only the welfare of others they don’t consider.

BLVR: To be sure, it’s still a member of their family, right? As you point out, our darker nature means that we tend to prioritize the needs of our “inner circle,” specifically our family, although it can be expanded to some degree.

The further away it gets, the less we feel any responsibility for other people and the more we are willing to act out with aggression and disregard.

FDW posits that morality developed as a method for strengthening in-group ties and as a way to compete with other factions.

He states that what was done to other groups was of little consequence, but that it was paramount to not engage in violence with members of the same in-group

. He further notes that the same trait which leads to intergroup violence between religions and nations, is also linked to the evolution of morality.

He acknowledges that those who advocate for universal human rights, and caring for people all over the world, have a difficult challenge ahead.

BLVR: Is it possible that primate research can help people understand that it is not natural for us to be as concerned with individuals we do not have any sort of relationship with?

It is clear that although we should care for those in distant out-groups, it is a challenge to do so. Our wealth is what allows us to do this, but in the event of an economic crash, like the ’20s, our concern for those far away may not be as strong.

This is due to our loyalty to ourselves and our family being the primary focus of concern. Philosophers may wish for moral obligations to the out-group to be independent of those to the in-group, yet this is not the reality.

Our loyalty to our own group is greater than to those distant to us, regardless of whether they are humans or animals.

BLVR: It is suggested that we possess a switch in our minds that can be triggered and cause us to regard someone who was once a friend as an enemy. According to you, an attack of some kind can initiate this switch.

You further stated that the reaction of some people to the Iraq crisis may be an example of this primordial instinct that is even seen in chimpanzees.

The scapegoat effect, which occurs in even rats, is when one reacts with frustration and anger and blames someone else, even if they are not at fault.

This was seen in the United States following the 9/11 attacks, when Afghanistan was not big enough to take out the anger the U.S. had. What was even more astounding was the support of the media at the time, which is now being questioned.

This has led to a tremendous loss of life, with around five hundred thousand Iraqis gone.


BLVR: What is the explanation for the disparity between the lifestyles of chimpanzees and bonobos, who are so genetically similar? One species is rife with violence and aggression while the other is known for its peace and GG-rubbing. What would cause such a distinction?

FDW: The leading idea is that bonobos inhabit a more plentiful environment, with the entire forest accessible only to them, rather than having to share it with gorillas (as chimpanzees do).

This allows female bonobos to go on journeys together, something that is not an option for chimpanzee females who have to go out alone to collect food.

This discrepancy may be the root cause of many other things, such as female dominance, as it provides the opportunity to form relationships and alliances.

BLVR: Is there a lesson we can take away from the dissimilarities in their environment? Can we inspire a type of culture where females can go on trips with their kids, potentially resulting in a less hostile atmosphere? Or are other social, ecological, behavioral disparities too vast for that to be a possibility…

The issue is that we have a distinct history when it comes to forming a family unit. We are so invested in the idea of a nuclear family, something bonobos do not practice.

It is hard to comprehend how a bonobo-type society could be formed in which everybody mates with everyone else when we have been conditioned through different evolutionary forces that are hard to reverse.

BLVR: Is it a hopeless endeavor to attempt?

FDW suggested that the social and moral systems in our society are designed around male investment in offspring. This protection of the investment is the reason why there is emphasis on female virginity and fidelity.

To move towards a bonobo-esque society would necessitate the destruction of this system, which would create additional issues. Despite the attractive notion of egalitarian relationships, free sex and peace, it’s not an available option given present conditions.

BLVR: However, it appears that you consider there is a considerable variability in culture among humans.

Yes, genes can be likened to a leash that governs culture, like E. O. Wilson stated, but to what extent? Moreover, how much power do we possess in terms of where we go while bound to it?

The notion of harmony is highly valued in some societies. The Japanese in particular are known to prioritize this concept to a greater extent than the people of the United States. This can be seen in their attitude towards conflict, where it is seen as more suitable to stand up for oneself rather than be a victim. It is unclear what factors cause one nation to embrace such values more than the other, but this is a question for sociologists rather than primatologists.

Despite not being bashful, you have contemplated potential implications of your research that could affect the social policies directed towards people.

FDW: The main point is that individuals, such as people or animals, will be more likely to cooperate if you focus on common goals. This is a fundamental concept in Japanese culture, where the focus is placed on collective interests instead of individual desires.

For example, instead of saying “Don’t fight!”, the emphasis should be on the shared interests or objectives.

BLVR: From your experience as a primatologist, have you discovered any applicable insights that can be utilized to address human issues? Is that something that piques your curiosity?

FDW expressed that conflict resolution programs in the U.S. are not enough. He stated that kids are intelligent and will understand what their teacher wants, but it won’t change the underlying attitudes.

His suggestion was that the emphasis should be on teaching them about the value of relationships and the group, which will lead to fewer fights.

Furthermore, he pointed out that social psychology experiments have shown that when competition is created between groups, it leads to higher social cohesiveness within the groups. Lastly, he remarked that nations at war tend to be more cohesive nations.

He concluded that these observations are quite apparent.

BLVR: This reminds me of your exploration of distinctions between the sexes. You mention how males, both in humans and chimpanzees, tend to engage in fights more often but have a greater capacity for resolving disputes.

On the other hand, females will not usually fight, but when they do, it’s usually with no chance of reconciliation.

FDW: It’s not always easy to agree that women are more peaceful than men, since the murder rate can be seen as a counter-argument. On the other hand, I do think that they are not as adept at resolving confrontation and that is why they strive to steer clear of it.

Usually they manage to accomplish this, however when a quarrel emerges, it can be a different story.

It is common for females to harbor resentment.

Acknowledging that there is often no resolution to certain situations, a lot of female intellectuals struggle to accept this notion. Many have been brought up to believe that women are inherently good, while men are bad.

Golda Meir, the female politician, once proposed that “it is beneficial that men fight wars, since it is only them who can make peace”.

BLVR: Might one say “Obama in ’08”?

FDW: I’m not voting, but if you want my opinion, the U.S. needs a leader who comprehends that its population is only 5% of the global population.

You are as much entangled in the global economy and international affairs as anyone else, so instead of trying to be a bully–which hasn’t been very successful–you would be better off with employing some primate diplomacy. What is needed is a “groomer-in-chief”.

Read Full Biography
Back to previous

You May Also Like


Adele Extends Las Vegas Residency and Announces Concert Film

After wrapping up a successful run of 34 shows at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace, Adele has announced an extension……


Resident Evil 4 Remake: Gameplay Experience and PS5 Enhancements

The Resident Evil 4 remake is a thrilling experience for players with diverse play styles, resulting in varying completion times…….


Crash Team Rumble Set to Launch with Closed Beta and Pre-Orders

Activision and Toys For Bob have officially announced the release date for Crash Team Rumble, set to launch on June……

related articles

A MicroInterview with Harold McGee


The Man Who Could Not Disappear

articles about Archive

President Biden Honors Renowned Figures with 2021 National Medals of Arts and Humanities

March 23, 2023

Social Media’s Impact on Teen Mental Health and Brain Development

March 22, 2023

Elden Ring’s First Anniversary: Over 9 Billion Deaths, 20 Million Copies Sold, and Anticipation for Upcoming DLC

March 22, 2023


March 20, 2023

An Interview with Doseone Copy

January 27, 2023