The Good Fight
Frans de Waal on Chimpanzee—and Human—Politics

Frans de Waal on Chimpanzee—and Human—Politics

Yascha Mounk and Frans de Waal discuss how studying the (other) great apes can help us better understand human behavior and society.

Frans de Waal is a Dutch-American primatologist and the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Primate Behavior in the Department of Psychology at Emory University. He is the author of, among other books, Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes and Different: Gender Through the Eyes of a Primatologist.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Frans de Waal discuss how primate empathy forms the basis for human morality; the precedent for diversity in human gender and gender roles that exists in non-human primates; and why, despite attempts to separate human behavior from human biology, you can’t have one without the other.

The views expressed are those of the speakers, not those of Persuasion. The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: Why should we study primates to understand human society and human behavior? What is it that we can understand about ourselves by studying these cognate species?

Frans de Waal: We are primates. We are so close to some primates like chimpanzees and bonobos that there are even people who feel they need to be in the same genus, Homo. They're very closely related. Socially and emotionally we are basically the same as the other primates. I don't think there's a huge difference in our emotional or social life, how we strive for success and how we value social relationships and so on. Cognitively, there's just maybe a bit of a difference—some people exaggerate it and make it a huge difference. I think the differences are not so great. Yes, we have language for example. I consider that an important difference. But, overall, we are primates. Looking at the other primates, we learn a little bit about primate psychology, which is also our psychology. It places our psychology more in an evolutionary context than we're used to. I think that's fairly valuable.

The most common mistaken assumption is that if you look at the other primates, you see instinct. If I say for example that there's political behavior in chimpanzees, people say, “Oh, that means it's instinctive.” They think that in the other primates you see instinct, and if you look at humans, you see culture—more culture than biology. That's a big mistake. Because if you look at the other primates, you also see culture. For example, a chimpanzee becomes an adult when they're 16. They have a very slow development and they learn a lot before they are adults. We know that there's a lot of cultural habits that they have. If you look at the other primates, you also see culture, and if you look at humans, you also see a lot of biology. I think that's the biggest mistake, that people think that in animals things must be simple and instinctive. Nothing is simple, especially not in the great apes. 

Mounk: Tell us a little bit about those cultural differences. If I were skeptical of this point, and you'd want to illustrate it, what are the kinds of cultural differences you get between one group of chimpanzees and a different group of chimpanzees living elsewhere?

de Waal: The most basic one is that they cannot survive without the culture. Take for example captive chimpanzees (or captive monkeys, for that matter). If you release them in the forest, they will die. They will die because they don't know what to eat. They don't know what dangers to avoid. They don't know how to orient themselves. They're just hopeless and helpless. Culture is absolutely essential for their survival; there are a lot of things that they eat that they learned from each other. Cracking nuts is a good example; there are chimpanzees who have nuts and stones in the forest and don't do anything with them and other chimpanzee groups where they have stones and nuts and they crack the nut with stones. They have a lot of extra food that way, because nuts are a very valuable food source. That's one cultural difference. There are tons of them documented in all sorts of species—not just the primates, but also in whales—and, of course, birdsong is cultural. People assume that what you see in nature is biology but it is also often cultural.

There are fashions, for example. That's well documented. Sometimes a chimpanzee group develops a fashion. For example, there was one group where the females put grass in their ears and walked around the whole day with grass in their ears. Pretty soon all of them started doing it—females more than males (females always do more self-ornamentation than the males do). You do have groups that are more peaceful or more aggressive than other groups, social differences like that, but not in terms of the customs like who you have sex with. 

Mounk: Do we have a model for what causes one group to be more peaceful?

de Waal: There's an observation by Robert Sapolsky. One of his baboon troops lost the most aggressive males due to poisoning at a garbage dump. All of a sudden, the most aggressive males were gone and the group became much more peaceful. That's understandable. There's no big mystery of how that may happen. But, then, the group kept the peace for the next 10 years even though there were males coming in and males going out (which is typical of baboon troops). His speculation was that the fact that they kept it going for 10 years is because the females were selective in what kind of males they admitted to the group. The females had decided that a more peaceful group was pleasant and was something that they wanted. It was not a genetic difference but it was maybe selectiveness of the females in this particular case.

Mounk: One thing that people like to think through when we look at non-human primates is how they reflect on our own nature—in particular, whether we're biologically hardwired to be moral or to be selfish.

What are some of the wrong assumptions that people make about what we can learn about morality and human nature from studying non-human primates and what do you think the actual lesson is?

de Waal: I got interested in the evolution of morality because I worked on empathy in primates. The first studies of empathy were mostly about what you would call reactions to the distress of others: you see a child crying, you console them and you help them if necessary. That's an act of empathy. Chimpanzees and bonobos do exactly the same thing. If one of them has lost a fight, or has fallen out of a tree, or whatever it is that distresses them, others come over and embrace and kiss them and try to calm them down. So I got interested in acts of empathy, and very soon I discovered that, for many people, empathy is very close to morality. For the Dalai Lama, of course, compassion is all you need. You don't need much else for morality than compassion. Morality is probably more than that. But empathy is a very important feature. Without empathy, you cannot be a moral being because empathy is what draws you into others. How can you be a moral being if you're not interested in others? I got interested in the evolution of morality and noticed that there's a lot of top-down theory in the evolution of morality. It's like Kant—the idea that there is a rational decision to be a moral being, that we reasoned ourselves towards moral principles. I don't believe a word of that. I'm much more Humean; David Hume assumed that the moral emotions, what he called the moral sentiments, are the basis of human morality. I think that's exactly the case and it is built on a primate morality and a primate empathy—primate psychology, basically. Human morality is not some sort of invention that is independent of biology. I do think it goes beyond what chimps or bonobos do, it's more complex than what they do, but it's clearly related to what they do.

Mounk: The existence of empathy seems like a good piece of news. But at the same time you also see the continuity of fights and other small forms of war. 

How reassured are you by the existence of empathy in these non-human primates and how does empathy interplay with aggression, status-seeking, dominance and all the other kinds of moral passions that humans also seem to share with primates?

de Waal: When humans are nice to each other we are probably nicer and more altruistic than any primate. When we're nasty to each other, we are worse than any primate. We have genocides, which is not something that other primates do. We have these extremes in our psychology. You cannot say that humans are, by definition, nice or nasty. We alternate between the two depending on the circumstances and depending on what we're being told by the politicians and so on.

We have extremes, but you see the same thing in chimpanzees and bonobos. Bonobos are generally nicer than chimps, less violent. Actually, we don't know of one bonobo killing another bonobo. We know of plenty of that in chimpanzees, both in the field and in captivity. All these species, they have that same spectrum. It’s not as wide maybe, but they have that same spectrum. They can be extremely aggressive under certain circumstances and they can also be extremely nice. I would not simplify these things. I can understand why some people would want to be more like a bonobo than like a chimpanzee. There are also sexual reasons for that, of course, but it’s the same sort of spectrum you see in all species.

Mounk: What determines when we are empathetic and when we're aggressive? And is there something we can learn from that about how to set up cultures, societies, and political structures in ways that will encourage cooperation and niceness rather than conflict and aggression?

de Waal: Empathy is very biased; it is aroused more by individuals who are familiar and similar. In humans, that means individuals of your same tribe, so to speak—your culture, language, color, and so on. We do empathy studies on all sorts of animals nowadays and they always have this social bias built in, which means it's hard to generate empathy for individuals who are quite different from you, who are distant, who are a different ethnic group or speak a different language. That becomes more difficult for you. Empathy is a bit narrower, and that's also why some people have objected to it as the basis of morality. But the fact that we have it is really important. And once you have empathy, the capacity for it, you can try to mentally expand it. We humans are busy doing that in our moral systems. I always use the example of the Geneva Conventions—that you treat your enemies well. Well, I don't think any primate would come up with the Geneva Conventions, because it goes against that narrowness of empathy, that we try to expand the rules for in our human moral systems. That's a cognitive capacity that we have and that’s why we try to do things like that.

Mounk: Influenced a little bit by the work of primatologists like you and social psychologists like Jonathan Haidt (an old friend of the podcast), I have written my own work about the groupishness of human beings; how we are capable of extreme altruism and courage in helping and defending those we think of as members of our own group but also that there is this extreme cruelty with which we can treat members of the out-group. What is the evidence from your field of study about how easy it is to move those lines of empathy? 

de Waal: What is different about humans is that it's the scale of our societies. So we have societies of millions of people. In the primates, the group is the individuals that you know—that you live with and that you know. There are no anonymous individuals that you consider part of your group. So it's very limited—usually 100 individuals maximum. That's your group. You're nasty to the other group, but you're nice to your own group. That's a general rule in other animals too. An interesting thing once happened with a group of chimpanzees in Africa that were studied by Jane Goodall, and she describes that process where they were one group but they split. These are individuals who have grown up together, played together, and know each other extremely well. But the group split, and they became enemies. A couple of years later, they started killing each other. All of a sudden, these individuals who knew each other started to redefine the other as a member of the other group. That's a possibility in the chimpanzee, that you kill members of another group even though you know them individually and you've lived together with them. 

But it's all on a much smaller scale than in human society because we have markers for group membership: the way you dress, the way you talk. We have markers that you don't see in any other primates. The scale of our enterprise is very different in human society and so the intergroup processes are not exactly the same, but it's the same rules. You treat members of your own group very differently from members of the other group.

Mounk: Bonobos are sometimes held out to be the lovely species, the more peaceable and so on. Does the distinction between in-group and out-group work exactly the same way with just a little less severe consequences, or is the whole idea of bonobos as particularly peaceable sort of wrong to begin with?

de Waal: One interesting thing with bonobos is that the groups sometimes mingle. In chimpanzees, that's not a possibility. Chimpanzees have different degrees of hostility between the groups but never friendship or good relationships. In bonobos, the females are in charge. The females are dominant over the males, not individually but collectively. If the females decide that they want to meet other females of other groups, they're going to do that. The males may not be entirely happy with that and the males actually show some signs of territoriality. The females mingle with each other and share food sometimes and even adopt offspring of other females in other groups. It's interesting for us, as humans. If we contemplate our evolutionary history, people always focus on the chimpanzee. Anthropologists especially are very happy with the chimpanzee. They are male-dominated, they're violent, they have intergroup warfare going on—yes, anthropology is very happy with them, because anthropologists’ scenarios of human evolution are often based on humans being warriors, which is very male-oriented, and so the bonobo is often pushed to the side. The bonobo is too peaceful and too sexy for the taste of some anthropologists. I think the bonobo needs to be brought into every discussion. My last book is on the gender discussion. Bonobos need to be brought in. They are exactly equally close to us as the chimpanzee, but they have a very different sort of social organization and a very different kind of behavior. The bonobos show us that peaceful intergroup relationships are also possible. There is a tendency in anthropology to emphasize that humans stand out because we cooperate between groups. That's very special, they say. But, actually, that's something that the bonobos do too.

Mounk: What can we learn about the nature of the role of biological sex and the nature of the construct of gender in humans by looking at the behavior of non-human primates?

de Waal: One is that in the other primates, too, you can speak of gender, in the sense that they learn certain aspects of their sexualities from each other. The young males watch the adult males and the young females watch the adult females and they follow their example. There is also a cultural transmission of how you behave as a male and how you behave as a female. In that sense, I think gender is a concept that can be applied to other species as well.

Mounk: Is there variation in those kinds of gender roles between groups? Is it true that one colony of bonobos with a kind of expected gender role of what standard of behavior you should live up to is significantly different from the standard in a different colony?

de Waal: I don't think we have solid evidence for that, but you would expect it because we do know that there is biased learning going on. For example, a recent study of orangutans in the forest showed that young females eat exactly the same foods as the moms, exactly the same diet. But young males vary. They sometimes eat foods that the mother never touches. That's because their models are the adult males that they see eating on occasion. We do have evidence that there is biased learning going on. 

Another thing that we learned about gender, and people don't always expect this, is that I think there is as much gender diversity in other primates as in humans. Homosexual behavior, of course, is very common in the primates. I usually call bonobos “bisexual” because I don't think they make a big distinction between whether they have sex with a male or female. In other species you see less but still quite a bit of homosexual behavior. You see individuals who don't fit the typical roles. You see males who don't play the macho game and don't want to be the dominant male, necessarily, and stay out of all the politics going on. I describe in my book a female named Donna, a chimpanzee who was born as a female but who acted more like a male the older she got. Then she grew into a figure which looked like a male and she associated a lot with the males. I cannot ask her her gender identity but I bet she was identifying as a male. That's how it looked to me. All the gender diversity that we have in human society, transgender people and homosexual orientation and so on, we can see in the other primates. The interesting part is that they have no trouble with it. I've never noticed that they exclude an individual because of this. The tolerance level is a lot higher than in most human societies. But the variation is very similar.

Mounk: An extreme reading of what you just said would imply that, therefore, human notions of biological sex are overly simplistic and that we should get rid of the idea of a biological sex binary, because everything is gender all the way down. But I take it that that's not what you're saying. What conclusions should we draw from these really interesting observations that you just made?

de Waal: I think sex is mostly binary: 99% of individuals are either male or female and there's a small slice of individuals who are in between. Gender is, of course, a very different way of thinking. Gender is a cultural construct. I usually divide it not by male and female but by masculine and feminine and everything in between. It's an extremely variable concept. And as I said, it's probably applicable to other primates as well, though maybe less well than in humans. But in humans it is very important to distinguish those two. 

There are sex differences that are universal, differences that we see in all human societies and in all primate societies. It's very hard to argue with some sort of biological background. For example, all young males, all primates (including human boys) like to wrestle when they're young; they do mock fighting, they run around, try to wrestle each other down. In the young primates this is a very big bias; the males like to do that and the females don't like to do that, necessarily. That's why the females often play separately from the males. In all human societies this has been documented. Another thing that's universal in play behavior is that in all primate societies and all human societies, young females are more interested in infants and dolls. If you give a doll to a group of chimps, it's always a female who's going to pick it up and care for it. If a male picks it up, he may take it apart and look inside the doll to see what's in there. But the females will put it on their belly, on their back, walk around with it and care for it. They do the same thing with the infants of other females. The interest of young females in infancy is also a universal human bias, primate bias, and it's fairly logical, because later in life, for most of their life, they will care for offspring. 

People want to choose between biology and culture. And that's why you get these discussions with some people who say gender is all cultural. There is nothing that is all cultural. That doesn't exist. Because what is culture? Culture is us influencing each other and we are biological organisms, biological organisms influencing other biological organisms—automatically, biology is in there. There is no pure culture. It doesn't exist. There is no pure biology either. That doesn't exist. And that's why, in biology, we don't speak about instincts anymore in animals, because everything an animal does is influenced by how it grew up and what it learned in its lifetime, and so on. And so there is no pure biology either. So people want to choose between the two. And it's a false sense of security that they have that they can do that, but you cannot do that. And so everything we do is influenced by two factors, the environment and our genes, and by the interaction between the two. And I think that's one of the lessons you get if you look at the behavior of other primates and humans: that nothing is simple. People think that if you look at the other primates, you see biology, I don't think that's the case, you see also a lot of cultural learning there.

Mounk: How should we think about gender in a way that is true to the science and that can help us make sense of our own societies as well as those of non-human primates?

de Waal: Gender has to do with how you express your sexuality, your sex role, and how much you follow or don't follow the dictates of your culture. Gender, of course, changes over time and from place to place. At the moment, we're going through a big change in gender in that men are getting much more involved in family care and in being involved in the family. That's a flexibility that actually I see also in the other primates. For example, chimpanzees and bonobo males, they don't do anything with the young. The females do everything. The males may protect them on occasion but that's about all they do. But we know that if a mother loses her life in the forest, and all of a sudden there is an orphan, we know that sometimes males pick up these orphans and carry them. They adopt them and not just for a couple of days. High-ranking males like an alpha male may adopt a baby chimp and take care of it for five years. It's not always expressed, but they have that tendency and that capacity. 

That's very interesting in relation to what is happening in human society at the moment where men are getting more involved in childcare. The conservative pundits on TV say, “Why should we care about paternal leave? It's a female job to take care of the offspring.” Look at the other animals. It's not entirely true. I think that the capacity for caring for the young exists in many males. What we're doing in society now is bringing that out and relying on it.

See also: Richard Reeves on Why Men are Struggling

Mounk: There seems to be a kind of reluctance among many intellectuals to think in terms of evolutionary biology, in part because they don't like to think of humans as being in any way determined by our nature. They want to think, as Steven Pinker and others have shown, that there is a kind of a blank slate; it just feels more progressive and more appealing to say that we're not constrained by our nature in any way. Perhaps also because there are some really bad arguments from evolutionary biology made in the public realm, it's easy to push back against the whole thing. 

What do you think the role of evolutionary biology should or shouldn't be in reflecting on the world and on human societies and thinking through who we are and how we act?

de Waal: I think that in the social sciences and in philosophy, the humanities in general, there is still an attitude that I call “neocreationism.” They accept that evolution has occurred for humans. But it has stopped at our head: from the head down, we are evolved primates, but our mind is something totally different. That's an illusion. Evolution, of course, includes everything, including the brain. But they cling to that idea and, of course, it's a traditional position in the West that humans are something special. Initially, this was supported by all sorts of research. In the previous century, the studies of animal behavior were extremely simplistic. They were dominated by B.F. Skinner and his rats who pressed levers and stuff like that. That's all we saw of what they did. It was a very simplistic view of animals and that supported the view that humans were very special. But now we have all these cognitive studies on animals that are really coming up at the moment. That started about 25-30 years ago with these massive studies, and it becomes ever more difficult to maintain that humans are special because basically everything we do we can see some examples of in other species. 

We need to free ourselves of this very anthropocentric bias that we have. I call it “anthropodenial” because we who work in animal cognition are always accused of being “anthropomorphic,” of being unduly hasty in our assumptions that primate behavior is humanlike. Anthropodenial is the opposite—you deny the connection with other species and you deny the connection of them with us. It's a very dangerous attitude. The COVID crisis and the climate crisis are both crises of humans overestimating, assuming that we are separate from nature. Humans need to learn that we are part of nature. We are part of biology. We are part of evolution, including our wonderful mind (which is great as it is). That idea that we stand outside and we are different from everything else—that's an old religious idea that we need to drop.

Mounk: That comes from two different directions, right? There's this old religious idea that humans are somehow special: we're these Cartesian dualistic beings who are free to act as we wish in the world without any kind of input from biology. There's also, I think, a real resistance from a more progressive perspective towards explanations that have to do with evolution, where the moment we talk about evolutionary biology (“alpha males” and this and that) that's seen as justifying traditional societies. 

You've said that what is sometimes written in newspapers about alpha males just isn't actually what you find in your research on alpha males. Perhaps a better understanding of these phenomena in the natural world would then also make it easier to take seriously those arguments from evolutionary biology, because the resistance against them is based on a caricature of what evolutionary biology actually implies.

de Waal: Alpha males are depicted as bad. I don't think they're that bad. I think three quarters of them are really good leaders. Good alpha males do much more than act as the boss of the group: they keep the peace, they keep the group together, they show a lot of empathy for others, they can become extremely popular and loved by the group because they are good leaders. In the business world they have all these books about “how to be an alpha male” and what they really mean is “how to be a bully,” “how to let everyone know that you are the boss.” That's not really what I consider the typical alpha male in primate society. 

The tendency of people has been to shove the bad side of human nature into biology. The good side of human nature is something that we do, we call it our “humane” behavior. But peacemaking, empathy, paternal care, and maternal care—all of these things are also biology. Maybe your leftist friends are saying that they don't like evolutionary biology because it usually reminds them of all the negative things that we humans do. But evolutionary biology is also involved in all the positive things that we do. You cannot get around it. We have a tendency to depict nature as a place of competition where only bad things happen, but that's really not the nature that I know. We are reducing nature by saying that.

Mounk: You have spent a lot of your scientific career working very closely with non-human primates. Tell us a little bit about the personal side of what it is like working with these animals.

de Waal: I've worked all my life in large zoos and at the primate center here where we have an outdoor facility. But of course, as someone who works in captivity, I'm very close to the primates. I know them all by name and I work with them every day. Most of it is observation of their social life. But sometimes we bring them into a room and we do a certain cognitive test on them and for all of that I need their cooperation. I need a good relationship with them. Otherwise, there's no point in trying these things. Some of them are friends. Some of them I've known for 25 years or longer. I described in one of my books Mama, who was the alpha female of the Arnhem zoo colony for 40 years. A very important figure. I've known her for 40 years. Each time I would come there, which is maybe once a year or so, she would recognize me and I would recognize her and we would talk together, so to speak. Some of them are friends and, clearly, are very close to me. When they die, like Mama died a couple of years ago, that's also a very difficult moment. You lose a friend, basically.

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Podcast production by John T. Williams and Brendan Ruberry. Podcast cover image by Joe O’Shea.

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The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.