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COVID-19 Dispatch: Frans de Waal Talks Human Nature

The world hasn’t been quite this chaotic for some time: society as we know it seems ripe to burst after three months of pandemic. If you’re tired of the accusatory politics and contradictory science, Frans de Waal is just the right man to take a step back and peel back the layers of perplexing human behaviour. The acclaimed Dutch primatologist and Emory University Professor has been in the public eye for many years thanks to his seminal literary works Good Natured and The Bonobo and The Atheist. On Tuesday June 2nd, he kindly checked in with Room for discussion to expound on what we share with our apelike forefathers: piece by piece the dots are connected.

First to be addressed is the issue of “anthropodenial”, a term coined by De Waal himself, referring to an inability to acknowledge the animal within ourselves, or to see the humanity in animals. He upholds the term as a counterweight to the widespread rejection of anthropomorphism among the academic community. He contends that we have an undeniable primal nature, and that it is going against this that has caused us a whole host of problems, from climate change to COVID-19 (by abusing and crossing food chains, or more bluntly, by eating bats). Despite what Professor de Waal views as a dogmatic tendency among anthropologists to elevate humans above the animal kingdom, the incursion of neuroscience into psychology has greatly advanced the field and benefitted from placing our species into a wider biological context.

Next follows an exploration of animal consciousness. The Theory of Mind interprets conciousness as the ability to understand the emotions and knowledge of others. In that respect, studies with chimps have shown that certain animals indeed pass that bar. Empathy (akin to emotional intelligence) is also very common in the among animals: they express their emotions in very similar ways to us, so it would make sense that they feel the same things. Feelings, however, are distinct from emotions according to Professor de Waal, and remain inaccessible, as they are more deeply rooted in language based communication. Indeed, many argue that it is precisely language that defines our humanity. Highly structured symbolic communication is unique to us. That isn’t to say that animals are incapable of complex communication, as dolphins, for example, continually confound researchers. Others suggest that it is culture that makes us human, yet primitive forms of culture (traditions built upon repeated activities) are also prevalent. De Waal asserts that humans and other animals alike are equally a part of nature: our environment and cultures are inextricably linked. 

The next point of focus is on morality. Despite being by all means an academic, the Professor doesn’t believe that society’s moral compass should be oriented by scientists. In his view, they have historically proven immoral and blindly eager to provide a solution to whatever problem is thrown their way (citing the atom bomb as a prime example). No, morality should the result of society-wide consensus. The idea that we are inherently bad and selfish and that this emanates from nature is plain wrong: as nature also provided us with the good, it is up to us to decide which traits we emphasise. Nonetheless, we aren’t immune from certain biological precepts, such as our seemingly irascible xenophobia, stemming from a deep–rooted aversion to those outside our “tribe”. De Waal has a simple remedy for that: humanise and dismiss our differences by connecting over our similarities. 

We encounter more parallels between ourselves and other animals in terms of gender. Despite obviously no cultural indoctrination, male and female animals act very differently. A prime example is the propensity for violence: among humans, males perpetrate 80% of all crimes, among primates, a similar statistic is reported in terms of noted aggressive behaviour. This is not to be taken as justification however; Professor de Waal has no time for the naturalistic fallacy (all that is found in nature is necessarily good). Due to undeniable biological differences, boys and girls should not be raised the same. Males are disposed to have greater upper body strength and will be generally more violent: they need to be taught discipline, honour and good conduct. It has been observed among elephants that when the older males are poached, the young ones, lacking the disciplinary framework, go off the rails and become very erratic. The preferred genetic comparison group to humans is chimpanzees: very hostile, territorial and male dominated. However, equally genetically close to us are bonobos, a female dominated system, much more oriented towards sharing and being friendly to other troops. If the coronavirus has taught us anything, it’s that the pseudo-alfa-male leaders such as Trump (all machismo without the requisite empathy, unification and peace) are frequently outshone by more considerate yet equally fierce alfa-females.

Finally, the concept of freewill is elucidated. Although there is no universally agreed upon definition, American philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt, in his book On Bullshit, defines freewill as the ability to go against our primal impulses (c.f. the classic marshmallow test), such as in delaying gratification for a larger payoff in the future. Although he claims animals are incapable of this, apes have proven just as effective as humans in similar tests, even distracting themselves from temptation with toys made available. We are equally impulse driven when we have to take decisions rapidly, and a lot of background computations occur that we have no control over.

Neither condemning us to simply execute our evolutionary programming, nor neatly extricating us humans from all things primal and uncivilised, Professor Frans de Waal provides us with a glimpse at how complex we truly are. Hear it straight from the horse’s mouth by clicking here or look it up on Spotify and Soundcloud!


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