Frans de Waal
(image by Wikipedia)
Part 2 of a two part Interview conducted September 11, 2013
Link to audio podcast.
Transcript checked by Dick Overfield.
Frans de Waal, he's a Dutch-American biologist who has been named among Time Magazine's "100 Most Influential People," He is the Charles Howard Candler professor of Primate Behavior in the Emory University psychology department in Atlanta, Georgia, he is the director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, and is the author of numerous books including Chimpanzee Politics andOur Inner Ape. His latest, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates. His research centers on primate social behavior, including conflict resolution, cooperation, inequity aversion, and food-sharing.
R.K.: And in terms of cooperation, you've done studies that showed that monkeys not only cooperate to achieve common goals, but they'll even help other monkeys, or other primates when they're not going to be rewarded themselves. When they're already fed they'll help another monkey, or whatever get food. Sharing work is required and you also found that in elephants, right?
F.W.: Yeah. We did experiments on chimpanzees because around the year two thousand everything changed for humans, in a sense, that until that time we were called selfish and competitive and we had selfish genes and all of this and the whole image of human species and all other species was that of competition and selfishness.
Around the year two thousand, all of a sudden, the neuroscientists and the anthropologists and the economists, they all started saying, well, humans are actually much more cooperative than we thought and less selfish than we thought and they have a sense of fairness and they are cooperative even when they don't get benefits from it, and so on.
The human species, all of a sudden, became quite altruistic, but usually it was added right after that that other animals of course were just as selfish as we had always thought they were. So that was a big change in the perception of humans, but also there was, all of a sudden, this implication that other animals were quite different. People started doing experiments at that time with chimpanzees to see if they cared about the well being of somebody else and they actually did not find anything. So they set up experiments in which one chimpanzee would pull an apparatus that would feed himself and his neighbor, and so on, and the chimpanzees were not doing that really.
There were not paying attention to it very much and the conclusion was that, yes, humans are the only altruistic animals. And then we set up an experiment where we did away with the whole apparatus that people have been using because we assumed that the chimps might not have understood the apparatus. So we said, well, if they don't understand it then of course it's not a real test of what they want to do for somebody else.
So we set up a much simpler experiment where you put two chimpanzees side-by-side. They can exchange food for tokens. So they get a bucket-full of tokens, bits of plastic basically, of different colors and one color, if they hand the token to us, they get food, but the neighbor who sits next to them gets nothing.
The other color, if they hand it to us, they get food, but the neighbor also gets the same piece of food and so the one who does the exchanging, for that chimp it doesn't make any difference, he will always get some food for what he does with us, but the only difference is one color feeds only himself, the other color feeds the two of them. What did we find? We found that chimps over time started to prefer the pieces, the color that would feed the two of them. So they did care about the well being of others.
They developed a preference for that and we have done many more experiments since and other people have done experiments since and now the perception is that, yes, chimpanzees do actually care about the well being of others and are not as entirely selfish as people had assumed.
R.K.: Now, you said early in the interview that people who think that humans are better are elitists. Why do you think it is that people feel the need to say that humans are better and different and more unique? All this research is showing that it's really a matter of degree.
F.W.: Yeah. Well that's a very old debate. Darwin of course already said that, something along the lines that however vague the cognitive differences are between humans and apes, or humans and other animals, they are a matter of degree. That's what he said and there has always been these two sides to the issue. It's that one group, mostly biologists, who will say that is continuity and then another group, mostly social scientists who don't work really with animals, saying that there is this huge difference.
Basically, I think all of the evidence of the last thirty, forty years of studies on animal behavior and animal cognition support the view that there is continuity. There are a few areas of difference and we talked about that, like language, and so on. So there are areas of difference and you can concentrate on those, or not if you want to, but overall, by and large, there is a lot of continuity.
R.K.: But that wasn't my question. I am already buying that, that there's continuity. My question is, why do you think people need to think otherwise? Why do people take this elitist approach and need to say that humans are unique and that there is this discontinuity in your terms? What is it about some people that they need to separate themselves from your work?