Frans DeWaal

The Survival of the Kindest, Part I

VTR Date: May 11, 2001

Guest: DeWaal, Frans


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. Frans de Waal
Title: “The Survival of the Kindest”, Part I
VTR: 5/11/01

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And for me, at least, our subject today relates very closely to something I asked Mario Cuomo about many years ago at this same table. Namely the compelling statement of his personal social and political philosophy that this extraordinary American had made in his First Inaugural Address as Governor of New York.

In it Cuomo attacked what he saw as the resurgence in our times of political thinking identified with the brutality of 19th century Social Darwinism in which the exploiters of America’s unincluded sought to translate Charles Darwin’s pointed observations of natural phenomena into unintended laws of social behavior. “Survival of the fittest may be a good working description of the process of evolution,” said the Governor, “but a government of humans should elevate itself to a higher order, one which tries to fill the cruel gaps left by chance or by a wisdom we don’t understand”. I would rather have laws written by Rabbi Hillel or Pope John Paul II he concluded than by Darwin.

Well, I admired the Governor enormously for what he said then in rejecting the Social Darwinism that still characterizes so much, too much of American political and economic life. The notion that harsh competitiveness and a continuing struggle for existence alone are the basis for progress in nature, and therefore should be imitated in society.

But then five years ago, I read an absolutely intriguing and quite relevant New York Times OpEd piece entitled “Survival of the Kindest”, by my Open Mind guest today Professor Frans de Waal of Emory University, one of the world’s leading primate behavior experts and Director of the Living Links Center for the advanced study of ape and human evolution.

In his Times piece, Dr. de Waal indicted that far from seeing nature only “as red in tooth and claw”, Darwin himself had tried to incorporate altruism into his theory of natural selection. Further, my guest wrote, that in his own researches on the evolution of empathy and morality, “I have found many instances of animals caring for one another. Evidence so rich that it seems to prove that survival depends not only on strength and combat, but also at times on cooperation and kindness”.

And now in his new Basic Books volume, “The Ape and The Sushi Master: Cultural Reflections of a Primatologist”, Frans de Waal delightfully carries further his observations on all arguments about nature or nurture; about instinct or learning and culture. And I suppose I should begin today by asking my guest which of these really does come first? Is it the chicken or the egg?

De WAAL: You mean in nature versus nurture?


De WAAL: Well, nature will always comes first I would think.

HEFFNER: That’s the elephant that you talk about? Nature ..

De WAAL: Nature’s the elephant, and human culture is the mouse. Yeah. Who walks next to the elephant, and has a big mouth. Yeah.

HEFFNER: Why, why do you say that?

De WAAL: Well, because we have a tendency to … we have a sort of “top-down” view of ourselves, so we take our highest achievements, like art and music and stuff like that … and, uh, we say that’s what defines us as humans. But, of course, human nature is much bigger and much stronger than all of that. That’s fairly superficial stuff, really. Art and music is pretty superficial versus human nature. As far as our brain structures and physiology and hormones and all of that are concerned. So, we are driven by nature to do certain things. And one of the products that we have is music and art. Which are wonderful by themselves, but, um, they are not the essence of the human necessarily.

HEFFNER: And yet, as I read “The Ape and The Sushi Master”, my sense is that you’re talking with great pride about our capacity to learn …

De WAAL: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … to generate culture and that of the primates you have studied for so long.

De WAAL: Yes. So, so, in the cultural domain, maybe not so much in art and music, but certainly in a broader cultural domain, there’s a lot of continuity between us and other primates. And so they are cultural beings in some sense as well. And that’s what I argue in the book … is that they are the products of their societies, they learn things from each other. Even, even simple things, like which predators to watch out for … so, for example, snake fear, the fear of snakes, is not in-born in a monkey. A monkey who is naive, who was born in a laboratory, has never seen a snake in its life, he’s not afraid of snakes. They have to learn that from someone else. And there’s actually experiments that have been done where they present these monkeys who are naive with another monkey who has experience … for example, a wild born monkey, who’s very afraid of snakes … they only need to see that once and from that moment on, they have the same snake fear that that other monkey has. And so, even such simple things as the fear of snakes are things that are culturally transmitted among the monkeys.

HEFFNER: And instinct?

De WAAL: Instinct is a word that we barely use anymore. Because instinct has this implication that something is purely in-born, there’s no environmental or learning affects on it. That barely exists in nature. And so “instinct” is not a term that is often used.

HEFFNER: Now you say, “is hardly used anymore”. What has happened that it isn’t used any more, but once was.

De WAAL: There is still a few out there, of animals as little gene machines who are programmed to carry out certain behavior. But I think most people who work actually with animals and animal behavior know that this doesn’t apply to most animals. Most animals have an enormous learning capacity. Some animals have a very long development like, like, for example, a chimpanzee male is adult when he’s sixteen. And an elephant and a whale is even longer. So in that period of time a lot of learning takes place. And so to call them “instinctual” would be a simplification. It would be similar to calling human instinctual, you can do that. But, umm, it’s a simplification of human behavior because there’s much more going on.

HEFFNER: When you say “you can do that”, you rather dismiss doing that. And yet, Freud and others …

De WAAL: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … did that to a fare-the-well.

De WAAL: Freud had a view that I cannot agree with, which, which was very dualistic, in a sense that he saw culture as the opponent of nature, basically. Like, we are born with a lot of basic instincts and then we have culture and morality, and the super-ego, to get over it, to suppress it and to modify it, and sublimate it, and all, all of these things. And so he saw this as a very antagonistic process, like you have on the one hand culture, and on the other hand you have nature, and they’re … sort of at fight with each other. And the same … Huxley saw it that way, some anthropologists saw it that way. And actually a lot of the social sciences still have that view as culture as an instrument to keep nature under control. And to over come nature and transcend nature. Now, I think culture is just a continuation of nature. You see culture in nature, so that’s why I’m discussing the possibility of culture in other animals, and I think it really exits. And human nature can never be left behind. There’s, there’s no way for the human species to say, “We can transcend biology”. We are biology. Our brains are biological instruments. So we have to work with that.

HEFFNER: So you’re not rejecting, uh, out of hand, the Freudian approach. You’re saying, perhaps, if I understand correctly …

De WAAL: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … and I may not … there has been an over … rather there has been an under-emphasis on the potential of education, culturalization …

De WAAL: Well, I, I don’t see culture and nature as, as opposed forces. As culture being sort of antagonistic to nature. And in that sense I would not be a Freudian, because Freud does see culture as something that helps us overcome nature. To, to make a distinction between culture and nature is perfectly okay, because I think culture is a different process then the natural process of natural selection. So cultural learning, for example, there are many animals who have habits and knowledge that they get from each other. So they’re not born with it, they don’t develop it by themselves, it’s not individual learning, they learn it from each other in the same way that our cultures operate where I am born in a culture and I adopt a lot of habits and I, I gain a lot of knowledge from the people around me.

HEFFNER: What are the political, if I may … or the social implications of your point of view?

De WAAL: The bigger implications maybe that the distance between us and animals is again getting smaller. And that there’s more continuity than we used to think existed. Whether that has political implications … you mean it could have ethical implications for how we treat animals, that’s obviously true. And it could have political implications in that we look at human society differently. I live in a society here in the U.S. which is built on the principle of competition. At least that’s what people say. I’m not sure it’s completely true. But they, they like to think that everyone is sort of out for himself, and all of the people are doing that. And in the end that’s the best for society. And you could, of course, argue that we are very social animals, very cooperative animals, which we actually are, I think. And not everyone is completely out for themselves. And so there is a strong tendency of cooperation and, and social values that relate to group values present in the human species and that’s what creates human societies. I don’t think human societies could exist purely on an egoistic, selfish principle.

HEFFNER: Are you suggesting then, that the 19th century Social Darwinians, so-called …

De WAAL: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … had things upside down? In reverse?

De WAAL: They had a simplified view of nature. I’ve called it an Huxleyan view of nature. And to, to explain that … you have Darwin and Huxley. Huxley was the big defender of Darwin in the time that Darwin lived. And he was an avid evolutionist. But he had a very simplified view, he had a sort of cardboard version of Darwinism. He saw the struggle for life … metaphor … he saw individuals as competing with others and that’s how you would advance society.

Darwin himself had a much broader view. Darwin included, for example, morality, in his view of nature. He wrote in “The Descent of Man” that even a baboon could have morality, if, if the baboon got smart enough. So he had a very broad view of morality and niceness and kindness. But Huxley promoted this view of everything is at war with everything else … a Hobbesian view, basically. And this is the view that got exported with Social Darwinism to the U.S. and got adopted as conventional wisdom. This is how nature works, everyone competes with everyone, and this is what will advance society.

Now, a really Darwinian view is not a Social Darwinist’s view at all. A really Darwinian view says nature produces all sorts of tendencies … as long as they are adaptive, they are produced. Some of them are very selfish and competitive, but others are very nice and cooperative. And so, a male tiger, for example, is a very selfish loner who works by himself, doesn’t need any one else, and is extremely competitive and territorial.

A dolphin is also a product of natural selection. The same process that has produced a dolphin, who beaches himself, as the rest of the group is extremely solidary and has a very high level of cooperation, and they help each other and they’re empathic and all of this. So, so natural selection can produce one extreme and the other extreme, at the same time. So it’s … and that’s the view that Darwin also held.

HEFFNER: In his lifetime, did Darwin understand what uses … negative uses were being made of his own theories?

De WAAL: I think he understood some of the negative use. He, he was not enough of a politician to go against it. It was Spenser, who introduced Social Darwinism, and I’m not sure … I think Darwin had already enough trouble with defending his own theory and, and getting it accepted widely, to also get involved in a political mess like that.

HEFFNER: You know, that, that interests me because in terms of something else you said a few moments ago … are we still finding it difficult … do you still find it difficult to, uh, relate the similarities, the parallels that you find between primate life …

De WAAL: MmmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … and our …

De WAAL: … and you mean …

HEFFNER: … lives.

De WAAL: I personally don’t find it difficult.

HEFFNER: No, no, no. I meant do you find objection?

De WAAL: Yeah. There is a ton of objections to it. By lots of people. So I usually divide the world in two kinds of people. And, and you find them in males and females and philosophers and scientists and everything. You have people who don’t mind being compared with animals … they love animals, they don’t care if you do that. And you have people who freeze and get very upset, being compared with an animal.

Now, for, for me that second group is very hard to fathom because I’m an animal lover and I’m a biologist. And for me, we are just animals. I don’t see the problem of being compared to a dog or a chimpanzee or whatever. But some people get very upset by that. And so these are people who are … have been raised in either religion or some sort of environment where you can only be comfortable being a human and being proud being a human, if you set yourself apart from the rest of the natural world. And say, “well, we are … we humans, we are different”. And all the animals and all the plants is something totally else.

But, um, as I say, there’s two kinds of people and there’s a whole entire other group of people, in the West as well. This is not just a cultural characteristic. You find these people in all societies. And so, for example, in France, in the U.S. you find them … people who … If you look at all the philosophers like David Hume, Montaigne, in France, they were animal lovers and they made all these parallels with animals. Human behavior and animal behavior. Aristotle, is a good example … who saw no problem linking human behavior and, and behavior that he saw in nature.

But other people like Kant, Immanuel Kant, the philosopher, had, had big trouble with that. He probably never had a dog, or maybe if he had a dog, he didn’t understand his dog. So, he, he would set humans apart from animals. And so there’s sort of two personalities around in the world.

HEFFNER: Which is dominate now?

De WAAL: Well the biological perspective is winning, of course.

HEFFNER: You say, “of course”, as a biologist.

De WAAL: As a biologist. Even in psychology, that’s now taking … so the social sciences and the humanities are the most resistant to change in this regard. Because they come straight out of philosophy and religion. And so they still have that dualistic view of “humans are here and animals are very far away”. But even psychology, the more it becomes an empirical science, which it is increasingly becoming, especially with neuroscience and everything in there. Increasingly, it’s adopting the biological view. That’s why we have evolutionary psychology nowadays, also. Which is very controversial, but neuroscience and evolutionary psychology are going to take over all of psychology, I think.

HEFFNER: What do your own studies contribute to this, uh, dualism, or this conflict?

De WAAL: Well, my own studies, umm, is the work on primates and how primate behavior relates to human behavior, and this particular book, I’m … I’m actually very much opposed to dualisms and am explaining …


De WAAL: … why these dualisms, we should get rid of these, these things. And especially the one between nature and culture. I am analyzing there by saying that animals may have cultural capacities, and so my own contribution is basically explaining over and over in my books that, uh, “yes”, we humans are a special species, but we are just an animal species in many other ways.

HEFFNER: And that doesn’t set well with the others.

De WAAL: That doesn’t sit well with some, some people, but I think that group is dwindling. So … when I was a student, if you were to give talks about the evolution of human behavior, or you would suggest that maybe certain things are in our genes, that, for example, male and female … the difference between males and females has something to do with genetics and hormones. You could get stoned at that time. I mean people would not accept that sort of stuff. Nowadays, uh, people yawn, you know, male/female difference and the genetics of male/female difference are, are much better understood as even brain differences have been documented in PET scans between male and female brains. And so people think it’s a, it’s a much more acceptable position. You go to stores now, you find tons of books on Darwin-this, Darwin-that, the evolution of this, the evolution of that … which you didn’t find so long ago.

HEFFNER: Yes, but at the same time we find theres a resurgence of anti-evolutionary forces … the, the creationists who are, uh, so powerful in certain school areas.
De WAAL: Yeah. Yeah. That’s a local phenomenon. I, I don’t deal much with that. That’s an American phenomenon. That’s only in this country that that’s happening …

HEFFNER: Only in America.

De WAAL: [Laughter] … that’s … only in America, as far as I know. And, um, yeah, I find it very hard to deal with that. I, I am personally not religious, but if I were religious, I would not be a little interpreter for all texts I suppose. And so I cannot, cannot handle this, and I don’t know why people still want to look the world from this particular perspective.

HEFFNER: Elsewhere in the globe do you find that?

De WAAL: No, eh, for this book, I went to Japan and China, especially because the study of culture in animals started in Japan. And I don’t think that that’s accidental that that was the case. Because in those cultures, the soul can travel from human to cat and from cat to God and from God back to human … the, the soul can travel across all sorts of animals. And so there’s much more view of continuity between humans and other animals. And as a result, also, the, the culture concept was not controversial because the culture concept was not tied up in the human species. Culture could apply to all sorts of species. And that’s why the Japanese were the first to do culture studies on animals. And so the view that we have continuity, that we actually derive from the apes, as the evolutionary theory would say, um, has never been controversial in the East. And so, um, in the West you have a spread between, in this case, between Europe and the U.S. as far as creationism. I see creationism is present in Europe to some degree, but no one ever talks about it, it barely exists and has no influence as far as I know.

HEFFNER: May I take you back a moment to this matter of gender …

De WAAL: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … culture. And genetics. Do I understand that you are uh, … saying that there is less emphasis upon, uh, culture as a function in gender differences?

De WAAL: No, I don’t think “less”. I think we pretty much know that the cultural environment has a big impact on gender roles and gender differentiation and stereotypical roles in a society and so on. So I don’t think by emphasizing the biological component, which we’re doing nowadays, by talking about differences in brain activity …

HEFFNER: MmmmHmmm.

De WAAL: … by differences in genes and hormones and so on. We’re not down playing the cultural component. That’s often a confusion that occurs, is that people think it’s a sort of zero-sum game. If you, if you emphasize nature, then nurture is non-existent. If you emphasize … but the two are always an interaction and working together some way.

HEFFNER: You know that and your colleagues know that. But isn’t there a great danger that, uh, the rest of us will not, and the rest of us as there is greater and greater emphasis put upon biological, um, genetic …

De WAAL: MmmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … origins of, uh, certain activities, that we’re going to move back again to …

De WAAL: … to a more biological view?

HEFFNER: Yeah. And, not just that …

De WAAL: MmmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … but to the elimination, or to the down playing of culture.

De WAAL: Yeah. That risk exists, has something to do, also, with journalists, you know. If I find a gene for something, they’re going to report that in the newspapers, “Gene for thrill-seeking”, or whatever the gene is for. And that gives the impression, because of this sort of sound bite culture that we have, that thrill seeking is not under the influence of the environment, which, of course, it is also. So a very good example is height. How tall you are is very much genetically controlled. It is one of the best correlations between genes and height that exists. At the same time, height is very much environmentally controlled. If, for example, Japanese kids are much taller now than they used to be because they eat much better. And so nutrition has a major impact on how tall you are. So at the same time that we have a very strong genetic component … tall people produce tall children … we have a very strong environmental component. And people need to understand that by emphasizing one, you’re not down playing the other. The two are always an interaction. There’s almost no system, no behavior, no psychological characteristic that is not a product of the two of them.

HEFFNER: And into this … where does Lamarckian theory fit?

De WAAL: Ah, Lamarck, of course, the, the …

HEFFNER: I mentioned a dirty word?

De WAAL: The inheritance of acquired characteristics. Well, it used to be a dirty word in, in biology because, of course, Darwin replaced Lamarckian thinking by saying that, that, you know, Lamarck would say that, that the neck of the giraffe got longer because he, he stretched more and more and this was then acquired by the off-spring.

HEFFNER: Because he learned …

De WAAL: Yeah, but …

HEFFNER: … to stretch more and more …

De WAAL: It’s interesting that cultural learning has some Lamarckian elements, of course.

HEFFNER: MmmmHmmm.

De WAAL: And cultural transmission … I learn something, I acquire new knowledge, I transmit it to you, you transmit it, with some additions of yourself, to the next generation, and so on … and so yes, there is some sort of Lamarckian evolution in culture going. Not the Darwinian one, but the Lamarckian one.

HEFFNER: And what about the impact of this upon our thinking? This reality.

De WAAL: Of …

HEFFNER: I mean you recognize it, I see it in your book.

De WAAL: MmmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: Uh, why does this not … I was going to use the phrase “play into”, but just strengthen the hands of Lamarckian thinkers?

De WAAL: Because it’s not the same Lamarckian thinking that Lamarck had. Lamarck felt that if, if an individual acquired certain characteristics, they were genetically transmitted to the next one. Now, in cultural learning that’s not the case. I acquire certain characteristics and this is socially transmitted to you.

HEFFNER: What difference does it make?

De WAAL: Ahhh …

HEFFNER: Seriously … in effect, what difference does it make?

De WAAL: It does, it does make that difference, that if you have a baby … and you die before the baby is, let’s say, a week old … none of these characteristics that you have acquired are going to be in the baby because the baby has had no time to learn them from you. In genetics, of course, you can die off right the next day, that doesn’t matter … the genes are in there and will do their work. So that’s a big difference.

HEFFNER: But I detect in the book a, a message, a, … if you say, “don’t use the word”, a Lamarckian …

De WAAL: Ahaa …

HEFFNER: … message. A, umm, a transmission …

De WAAL: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … of characteristics …

De WAAL: What it shares with Lamarck, and which is interesting, is a great level of flexibility. In the sense that it, it creates on top of genetic evolution, it creates this tremendous flexibility that exists in cultural evolution. And, of course, what I’m arguing is that the same applies now to animals. So instead of looking at animals, animals as little machines that are programmed to do certain things. We now look at animals as little machines that learn a lot of stuff in their lives, and transmit that sort of knowledge. And that makes for a very big flexibility in the sense that you may have one group of chimpanzees here who uses stones to crack nuts; and you may have another group of chimpanzees here, who live in the same environment, they have the same nuts available, but they never eat them because they don’t know how to open them. So you get this sort of variability, where one group is successful in exploiting a certain food resource, and the other one is not. Which is going to, in the long end, it is going to impact their reproduction. These guys are going to do better than these guys. So it’s going to have a feed-back impact on genetics, which is very interesting. And that’s where we get into evolution again, as genetic evolution.

HEFFNER: Where do you think we’re going with recognition of animals capacity, to build culture. To learn?

De WAAL: I think, I think the field of animal culture is going to be the big field in animal behavior in the coming 25 years. It has been coming up over the last 20 years. No one really knows much about it. Um,but in, in Japan, it has been a field available. It has been around for about 50 years. And so, I think we’re only scratching the surface at this very point. We have some data on chimpanzees that are very compelling and very interesting. We have some data on marine mammals, but it’s going to get bigger and bigger. And basically all sorts of animals are going to have some sort of cultural characteristics. So recently I get a letter, for example, from some one who has watched chipmunks in many different national parks in the US. A chipmunk aficionado, so to speak. And he says there’s one group of chipmunks in one park who eats the grains on the top of grass ???? by gnawing them through at the bottom like beavers do with a tree …

HEFFNER: Mmmmhmmm.

De WAAL: … and topple them, and then run to the place and eat the grains. And he says this is the only population of chipmunks in the whole United States that does that. So that’s a cultural characteristics of this particular population. Some smart chipmunk started this [laughter] and the others followed. So this Is just chipmunk … it’s a particular tradition in chipmunk culture. And we’re going to find lots more in all sorts of animals.

HEFFNER: There’s lots more that I want to ask, but we’ve come to the end of our program, so if you would stay where you are, I’d like to do a second one. Okay?

De WAAL: Okay.

HEFFNER: Good, and thank you so much for joining me today, Dr. de Waal, on The Open Mind … And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.