Frans DeWaal

The Survival of the Kindest, Part II

VTR Date: May 11, 2001

Guest: DeWaal, Frans


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

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And last time today’s guest and I talked about the survival of the kindest, rather than just the strongest and the most combative of our species and others. Indeed, “Survival of the Kindest” was the title of a New York Times OpEd piece he had written some time back. Basic Books has now published his “The Ape and The Sushi Master: Cultural Reflections of a Primatologist”.

For Professor Frans de Waal of Emory University is 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. And since our discussion last time took us in so many directions, I think we ought to pick up now with some of our loose threads.

Now, Professor de Waal you, you mentioned Hobbes …

De WAAL: MmmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … at, at one point, and I wonder whether you consider yourself a Hobbesian?

De WAAL: Not at all, no. I’m, I’m actually opposed to Hobbes. So Hobbes had this view … every man for himself, very competitive view of society, societies. And actually people are so competitive in his mind that, that you need some sort of overarching system to keep them under control and keep them in line, and educate them about different values that they could have. So that these different values don’t come naturally to man, eh, but humans have to learn them. He would say, for example, “every man is a wolf to every other man”, insulting wolves at the same time. Because wolves are a very cooperative species. They, they fight on occasion, obviously, and they are predators, but they are very solidary and cooperative at the same time.

So Hobbes had this view, which is still around, is that we need to instruct people how to behave because otherwise they will behave like animals, and we don’t want that. Huxley took over that view. Dawkins, Richard Dawkins, a contemporary biologist and also George Williams still have that view. A sort of very Huxleyan view where human nature is bad and we need to struggle very hard to overcome it, and set up the right systems to keep it under control.

I, I consider it a very Calvinist view at the same time because it’s a view that postulates an original … original sin basically, original badness in humans that we need to struggle very hard to overcome. Now, in that sense, Hobbes was the opposite of Darwin and Huxley was the opposite of Darwin, because Darwin assumed, together with some people like Westermark and Kroptokin and some other people of his days … that human nature, by nature was good. As we had a lot of good tendencies in us, it doesn’t exclude the competitive tendencies, but we had these tendencies to build a good society that consisted of cooperation, naturally in us. It was not … was not imposed from the outside, it came from human nature itself.

HEFFNER: Well, was it Gilbert and Sullivan who said that, uh, all men are either little “Liber-als” or “Conservatives”, they either have what you identify as a Darwinian point of view or a Hobbesian point of view, if you’re “Liber-al”, and assume that mankind is not bad, but rather good and cooperative.

De WAAL: Yeah, but people … people would, would associate Darwin with the Huxleyan and Hobbesian side. So if, if we say that Wall Street is a Darwinian jungle, what we mean is that it’s all men for themselves and competitive. Now Darwin, himself, did not hold that view. So, so that’s why, um, for these people to call themselves Darwinians, they are on the wrong track. They haven’t read carefully what Darwin, Darwin himself said. So I would argue that we have good tendencies in us and bad tendencies in us. We have very competitive and, and nasty behaviors naturally to us. But we also have available a natural repertoire of positive and altruistic behaviors. And, uh, what is really happening is that we have these two sides and there are “simplists” in the world who want to choose between one or the other. They say we’re only nasty or we’re only nice, or only noble, and so on. And …

HEFFNER: Yes, but then, then I find in a book that you’ve just written …

De WAAL: Yeah …

HEFFNER: … “The Ape and The Sushi Master” … when you’re talking about Maslow …

De WAAL: Aha.

HEFFNER: … you say, “I share his belief in the existence of a drive for dominance …

De WAAL: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … and isn’t that in the usual way in which Darwinian is used?

De WAAL: MmmHmm.
HEFFNER: That word is used. Isn’t that Darwinian?

De WAAL: It’s very Hobbesian, also.

HEFFNER: Hobbesian, too?

De WAAL: The drive for dominance.

HEFFNER: So how do we account for this, uh, difference in deWaal?

De WAAL: Okay, so, so that would be inconsistent if I would argue that we are only nice and peace-loving and fuzzy, cozy creatures, which I don’t think we are. So, I, I think we have natural tendencies towards the good and natural tendencies towards the bad, if you want to put it in terms of virtues. And vices, so to speak. As the old philosophers would do. Umm, we’re not one or the other. But we have a tendency to divide the world in black and white.

So, for example, chimpanzee society … long ago we would talk about chimpanzees, “they’re only peaceful”, they’re wonderful, they get along fine. And Jane Goodall’s old work would, would say that. Then came the time that we discovered that they actually kill each other in the field. And in captivity. I’ve seen them kill each other. So, so, I’m, I’m … I have no illusions about chimpanzee nature. It can be extremely competitive and brutal. So then we got this very black picture of chimpanzees, chimpanzees are the dark side of human nature … Is in the chimpanzee, so to speak. Whereas I would also argue, they are both.

Just as we are both. We have tendencies to be genus-sidal, to kill off each other and so on, on a large scale. At the same time, we have a tendency to form societies in which morality is important, in which we have altruistic tendencies … sometimes socialist systems. And so on. So we have both tendencies present in us. And the drive for dominance is a good example. Chimpanzee males, for example, always will try to be the top dog in the group, they will always strive for the top position and do everything they can in terms of coalitions and power struggles and so on to get to the point. At the same time, they are highly cooperative. They fight against the neighbors together, they hunt monkeys together. So they are hunters, cooperative hunters. So they’re friends and rivals at the same time. That’s possible. And it’s possible in humans, also.

HEFFNER: And this is where you agree with Maslow?

De WAAL: That’s where I agree with Maslow. Maslow had, I think, a simplified version of what animals do. But we don’t need to get into that because Maslow was not really known for his animal studies. But there was … his first studies were studies of primates. That’s where he got his, his big idea of self actualization. He actually got out of the primate studies.

HEFFNER: Well, now, is it unfair for me to ask you … and stop me if you feel that way … how your studies of primates have determined your own social or political philosophy.

De WAAL: Mmmm. I’m not sure they have affected them that much. You could, there’s more likely an effect the other way around, in a sense that I have a particular cultural background, which I think have put me on track of certain mechanisms that other people have not studied.

And I’m from the Netherlands, the Netherlands is basically the most crowded place on the earth, at least in the civilized … industrialized world, I would say. And, um, there is a tendency in the Dutch of trying to, to come to a sort of consensus, there is much less emphasis on “every man for himself”, and there’s much more emphasis “we’re all in this together”. And this relates to an old history of the Dutch, of fighting against the ocean. I mean if you would fight against the ocean, the rich could not just stay in the houses when the ocean was coming in, they had to work on the dykes just as hard as everyone else, to keep the water out. And so, this created more of an egalitarian society … it’s definitely more egalitarian than most other societies that I know.

And that’s the background that I brought to my studies of animal behavior. And so when I read papers … for example, when I was a young student, there were papers on how crowding induces aggression. This was based on rat studies. And how this applied to the human species as well.

I said, well, that sounds like nonsense to me, because, for example, the Dutch are not more aggressive than most other people. The Japanese are not more aggressive, in their society at least, than most other people. And so, I, I didn’t feel that that was the right thesis to postulate. And so I’ve done, actually, a lot of studies on crowding and aggression in primates and I found that there’s absolutely no effect, and actually some primates reduce aggression under more crowded circumstances.

And if you study human society, as we did for “Scientific American”, an article one time where we correlated homicide rates in human societies and tried to correlate them with population densities in those societies, there is basically nothing … there’s nothing there. You, you take the U.S., for example, has a very low population density to … compared to most countries. And has a ten-fold or twenty-fold higher homicide rate than most other countries, in, in the civilized world. So there’s absolutely no relationship between the two. And so, so my cultural background has led me to study things like conflict resolution, tolerance, cooperation, uh, and things like crowding and aggression. But without any illusions about what kind of species we are. I don’t believe we are a completely peaceful species, for sure. That’s clear from all the behaviors we see around us.
HEFFNER: Does that mean we should be, uh, somewhat suspicious of your conclusions because you come to them through a certain prism, through a certain way of thinking?

De WAAL: You should always be skeptical of all conclusions that scientists draw, by definition, I think. That’s always a good attitude. That I bring my culture to my investigations, or my … whatever background that I bring is nothing unusual. That’s true for every scientist. A male scientist may have a different perspective than a female scientist …

HEFFNER: You think … has that been demonstrated to your satisfaction?

De WAAL: Not to my satisfaction. There have been stories about how women pay more attention, for example, to positive or affectionate interactions in, in primate societies, or kinship relationships, and that sort of thing. I, I’m not convinced that that’s particularly the case.

But even if that were true … let’s, let’s say that’s indeed the case … that doesn’t devalue their findings. I mean it just means that there’s a particular perspective, and, and you still have to work very hard experimentally or observationally to validate these findings. But every investigator brings a certain amount of baggage to the job that he’s doing. Now you can look at that baggage as something negative that we should subtract from the job that he does. You can also look at it, as that it creates maybe some new perspective that no one had before.

And so, for example, the study of culture in animals, which is what I describe in this book, came from the Japanese investigators … it came from Imanishi and I’m convinced that it came from them because they had no hang up about the culture concept as applied to animals. Whereas Western scientists had enormous hang ups about this whole issue. And so here you have a particular cultural perspective that has contributed tremendously by opening up doors that no one else was opening up. So, that I bring a certain cultural background to my studies, I think, I’m not different in that than anyone else. And, it’s, it’s to be expected.

HEFFNER: When you write about Bonobos …

De WAAL: Aha …

HEFFNER: … you write about the Puritanism, uh, that dominates American life …

De WAAL: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: I gather you’re saying that would make it more difficult for an American born and bred scientist to deal with Bonobos and their sexual activities.
De WAAL: Well, this was the case. There were American and British scientists working on Bonobos who for, for some reason … for the fifteen years that they worked on them never talked about the sex that was going on.

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

De WAAL: So, it’s not that they …

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

De WAAL: … twisted the facts, but the facts were not complete. And, and there’s even the story of a BBC crew who went to the Congo to film Bonobos, and this was in the mid-90s when it was still possible … so they went and they filmed … and each time that the Bonobos were doing something sexual they turned off the camera. And the Japanese scientist who was watching them, he said, “why are you always turning off the camera?” And they said, “Well our viewers would not want to see this sort of stuff.” So there was the attitude of protecting the public. And I think the scientists had the same sort of view, if they saw all the sex that was going on among Bonobos, but “let’s protect the public”. Or, “let’s not get into trouble by mentioning this.” And, I am Dutch and I think in that sense that the Dutch are much more liberal, and so when Frans Lanting approached me with a whole set of beautiful photographs that he had taken of Bonobos in the field and said, “I cannot publish these things because no one wants this stuff”. And they were absolutely gorgeous … we decided to do a book together and to sign a contract with a publisher … this was the University of California Press, in Berkeley … maybe not …

HEFFNER: Oh, in Berkeley … [Laughter]

De WAAL: … Yeah … maybe not accidentally … and we signed a contract in which it stipulated that we would be free to use all the photos that we want to use and to say whatever we want to say about the sex life of Bonobos, and they held, they held themselves to their word. And we got this book out on the Bonobos.

HEFFNER: Well, let me talk about … for a moment, about something else that’s controversial. And, and that is, I wonder what your work … particularly with your interest in culture, um, does to the argument about … when I think of, um, “The Ape and The Sushi Master” and I think of the Sushi apprentice …

De WAAL: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … the Intern, um, … expected to learn by watching.

De WAAL: Aha …

HEFFNER: … and then you write a book about learning by watching.

De WAAL: Aha …

HEFFNER: What does that do to your thinking about, uh, media and their impact upon our lives.

De WAAL: Mmmmm … yeah, I’m, I’m not a psychologist who studies that. I think there’s lots of stories out there, but not very good facts out there. I think the facts on what the impact …

HEFFNER: The connection?

De WAAL: … the impact of the media on human behavior are very flimsy, I think those facts … most of the time … the impact on violent behavior, which is the think we’re most worried about …


De WAAL: … obviously. So I’m not convinced that that impact is as big. For example, in Japan you have very violent cartoons and very violent TV programs for children. Much more so than here. But, but the society, by itself is not particularly violent. I mean the homicide rate, for example, is much lower than here. And actually, these Japanese animations are now coming to the U.S. and some people are very worried about it because of their issue of the impact on children. But the impact is not proven in Japan, at least. So as I … I’m very, um, … I’m not convinced that the media have that sort of impact necessarily on human behavior that people think it has. At the same way that you could say that the media reflect the attitudes in this society. Which is probably much more likely.

HEFFNER: Well, but as you would say … both things are true.

De WAAL: Yeah.

HEFFNER: But the question is, to what extent do your observations about learning and observing lead you to feel that we’d, uh, be safer without that kind of input.

De WAAL: Yeah. I think, I think children learn a lot from their parents, for sure, and the same is true for chimpanzee society and so there are certain models that they will model their behavior after. And, uh, there observation plays an enormous role. So, for example, the young chimpanzee, who sits next to Mom and Mom is cracking nuts, will also start cracking nuts and adopt that behavior. Or, the young male chimpanzee, an infant who sees an adult male show a bluff display and run around with his hair up, bristling, making very impressive intimidation display, this young infant will do the same thing ten minutes later. Will act very similar. And so there’s, there’s a tendency to emulate individuals in the group that they know very well.

HEFFNER: You say “Mom” …

De WAAL: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … but can there be a substitute for Mom?

De WAAL: Yeah, there could be … it could be their sister, their big sister, something like that.

HEFFNER: Well, I, I think of … I think of not the big sister, but of other being, other influences that take up more of our time and space … the same time and space that in human society Mom and Dad used to take, but now, we’re talking about other influences, we’re talking about a television screen …

De WAAL: Yeah. As long as they identify with the other individual, I think. If there’s an identification process, like “I want to be similar to this, I want to be similar to you”, for example, then you may get emulation of behavior. So if I watch a bunch of cartoons, let’s say Donald Duck, or whatever the cartoon is, I don’t think you get that identification process necessarily. But with certain, certain things that happen on TV, I think identification takes place. And, and that may induce that sort of behavior.

HEFFNER: But obviously this isn’t something that has bothered you, or concerned you.

De WAAL: No. I, I haven’t thought much about it, I must say. I’m not an expert on this sort of copying from the media.

HEFFNER: I’d asked you before, in our earlier program, about where you think we are going and I want to come back to that. Where are your own studies going? Or where does the field of primate study … where does it go now?

De WAAL: I think a very important topic is going to be this issue of animal cultures, can have … can animals have culture, do they transmit knowledge and behavior from one generation to the next generation? And we think at the moment we have some good evidence for that on both apes and marine mammals, and birds to some degree. But this is going to get only bigger. And what it’s going to do, is it’s going to change our perception of animal behavior. Animals have been described over the last fifty years or so, either as “instinct machines” by the biologists, like they’re genetically programmed little machines; or as “trial and error learners” by the psychologists who talk about Skinner boxes and how everything is done by trial and error learning. And, and both processes are pretty stupid and pretty inflexible, actually, in some ways. And, uh, I think what the cultural studies are going to show is that animals are much more flexible; that animals are just as much a product of their group … so, you know a baboon raised in a baboon troop is very much like … it takes a village to raise a baboon, sort of like. You really have the, the total social influence that goes into this one individual. And, I think we’re going to discover that as much as we are the products of our societies and our cultures, animals are.

HEFFNER: More, perhaps?

De WAAL: Animals more than us? No, I don’t think so. I think we are very cultural beings. And what of course makes our cultural life different, because I talk mostly about similarities in my books, not so much about differences, but we have also a value transmission system. It’s that we attach, attach symbols to certain things, and values, and that’s not what animals are doing necessarily. So our cultures are more complex and more elaborate than most animal cultures.

HEFFNER: And the, the … you find that your studies are being increasingly, um, influential and by that token well supported?

De WAAL: Well supported financially?

HEFFNER: Yes, of course.

De WAAL: Well animal behavior is not the best supported area in, in the world, as far as, um, science goes, science funding goes. But, yeah, I, I can’t complain about it. I mean I wouldn’t be here if, I would be complaining about it.

HEFFNER: You mentioned Skinner before.

De WAAL: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: It seemed to me before I realized that there was a … an undertone of anti-Skinnerian feeling …

De WAAL: Aha …

HEFFNER: … in your book. It seemed to me that you were a Skinnerian yourself.

De WAAL: No, I, I was trained as an “ethologist”. Now an “ethologist” is from the biological school of animal behavior studies, not the psychological school. And ethologists emphasize natural and naturalistic behaviors. So, they want to see what animals do naturally in their environment and then understand why they’re doing it this way and why they’re not doing it another way. Why is it adaptive to them to do this? How did they get to the point of doing this behavior? Whereas the Skinnerians have much more a view of controlling animal behavior and modifying it, and seeing how far you can push their learning capacities and stuff like that. And so there has always been tension between the behaviorist approaches that come out of the Skinnerian school, and the ethological approaches. I would say that by now they are pretty much integrated and we’re not fighting as much anymore as we used to. But, umm, as an ethologist, trained as an ethologist, I look with a very skeptical eye on these Skinner boxes where the rat is in isolation learning something. Whereas rats are social animals, they learn a lot of things from each other as well. And so, what you need to do is you need to study the rat also in its natural environment to study what it’s doing and why it is doing it.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but when we go back then to that comment that you made in the book about “sharing the interest in dominance” …

De WAAL: Aha.

HEFFNER: Does this mean you’ve won? That your school, school has dominated this? Or are you saying there really is …both groups …

De WAAL: I think, I think Darwinian approaches which are basically biological approaches to animal behavior are very powerful now. And, and cannot be ignored by anyone who studies animals. At the same time, the behaviorists school has introduced very smart experimental techniques, with experimental controls, that are still being used and that are still extremely valuable to us. And so, I would not dismiss the behaviorists’ school as nonsense because I think they have delivered these wonderful techniques and some, some wonderful insights in animal learning. But it is true that the Darwinian view is going to dominate … and also in the social sciences … at some point the Darwinian view will take over, I think.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

De WAAL: I mean that …

HEFFNER: Take over.

De WAAL: Well I mean …

HEFFNER: There’s that dominance …

De WAAL: [Laughter] Oh, that’s what you mean with dominance. I mean that you cannot have a comprehensive view of human behavior, in let’s say psychology or sociology, or even politic-ology … without making certain assumptions about how we got to be the species that we are. So even linguists and even political scientists and even moral philosophers, will have to look into human nature and as soon as you look into human nature, you have to sort of wonder, where does that come from? And as soon as you wonder where does it come from, you have to look at the apes and other animals, and start making comparisons. And so I predict that fifty years from now every psych department will have a portrait of Darwin hanging in the hall. Because Darwin is after all, the one who came up with the theory that will explain most of those connections.

HEFFNER: But, of course, as you indicated before, it will have to … that representation of Darwin will have to be accompanied by an appropriate understanding of what Darwin was writing …

De WAAL: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … and thinking.

De WAAL: … so what you need to do is go back to Darwin and read “The Descent of Man” which I think is the book most relevant to the social sciences, and they will get a very different understanding from Darwin than they may have at this point. And I’m not saying that at the same time there should not be William James next to Darwin in the hall, or something. I mean there, there are certain psychologists who have been extremely influential and powerful, that also should be paid attention to, obviously.

HEFFNER: It seems to me that the most important emphasis you place is upon, though you reject the notion of duality …

De WAAL: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … but upon, umm, nature and nurture.

De WAAL: Aha …

HEFFNER: … where we began … you, you indicate to me … you’re not making choices …

De WAAL: No, I think because they always work in conjunction. You cannot have culture without nature. A culture divorced from biology is, is non-existent, as far as I know. And human nature without culture would be fairly incomplete we would argue, I suppose. And so the two cannot be teased apart. They’re always going to be both present.

HEFFNER: Well, you say they can’t be teased apart. But your metaphor and, ummm, you warn, really, against metaphors, they can be dangerous … of the elephant and the mouse …
De WAAL: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: Where did that come from. Why did you use that?

De WAAL: Because there is a tendency in, in certain circles, academic circles to think that we, we can sort of decide our own destiny as a species. We, we have this all control over ourselves … and cultural control and we have, we have it in our power to decide our society moves in this direction, or our society moves in that direction. Or we direct a child to become this, or a child can become that. And that was actually the classical statement in psychology, “give me a child, I can make anything out of it”. Well, this ignorance about the power of biology is what I mean with the mouse and the elephant. The mouse walks next to the elephant over a wooden bridge, and says, um, “listen to us stamping together”, which you know, is a grandiose statement for a mouse. And I think that’s the way the social sciences are acting … they’re walking next to biology, the brain structure, brain activity, hormones and behavior, genetics and behavior. They know that all of this exists and they say, “listen to us, working so hard, making any species we want to be”. And we cannot be any species we want to be. We can only be the human species, and its a very limited species in so, in many ways.

HEFFNER: Frans de Waal … I appreciate so much your joining me today again on The Open Mind. Thanks. And come back, and let’s tell everybody to read “The Ape and The Sushi Master”.

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.