Aug 29, 2006

these chimps are no chumps: part III

In parts I and II, we learned that chimps can teach each other about tool use and problem solving. What, though, can they teach us about ourselves? Enter Frans de Waal, one of the world's leading primatologists, with over three decades' experience observing the behavior of our closest relatives.

In this Spiegel online interview, the author of Our Inner Ape, which I breezed through last week, summarizes his book's themes better than I ever could.
SPIEGEL: Family and language are traits that you recognize as being unique to human beings. There is also another major difference: We have religion and ethics. Apes can't compete in that respect, can they?

De Waal: I'll admit that. But I do believe that religion and ethics are based on psychological building blocks that we share with related species. We have added a system of social pressure, with which we justify and emphasize rules. One of those rules is "Thou shalt not kill." It may be expressed by religious leaders or philosophers, but it merely signifies something that is deeply engrained in our consciousness.

SPIEGEL: When the Pope appeals to us to love our brothers, is he appealing to the apes in all of us?

De Waal: Essentially. I'm not saying that chimpanzees and bonobos are moral beings.

SPIEGEL: They're unlikely to be familiar with the categorical imperative.

De Waal: But they are. They're very familiar with the motto "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It's precisely the principle of reciprocity that I see, in addition to empathy, as the fundamental element in the psychology of all primates. We did an experiment in which we gave chimpanzees watermelons and then documented how they divided up the fruit among themselves. In the hours leading up to the experiment, we recorded which animals groomed which other animals' fur. The results were clear. The ape that divided up the watermelon gave significantly more to those apes that had groomed him earlier on.

SPIEGEL: You also mentioned empathy...

De Waal: Oh yes. For example, chimpanzees are quite good at comforting one another. If a friend is suffering, they hug him and attend to him. It's only our arrogance that makes us doubt that this is even possible. When someone brutally kills someone else, we call him "animalistic." But we consider ourselves "human" when we give to the poor.

SPIEGEL: On the other hand, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes said: "Homo homini lupus," or "man is a wolf to man."

De Waal: The evolutionary struggle for survival is really a self-serving series of blows and stabs, and yet it can lead to extremely social animals like dolphins, wolves or, for that matter, primates. I call the notion that we are nothing but killer apes the Beethoven fallacy. Beethoven was disorganized and messy, and yet his music is the epitome of order.
You can disagree with the political conclusions he draws (socialism out, capitalism out, democracy out, non-despotic hierarchies in) or with points of his analysis, but you've got to study our chimp and bonobo relatives with as much care and empathy as de Waal before you can say his claims are groundless.

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