Bring Your Questions for Frans de Waal

Frans de Waal

Frans de Waal
is one of the world’s most prominent primatologists, known especially for having drawn parallels between the behavior of humans and non-human primates — from peacemaking to morality to culture.

His first book, Chimpanzee Politics, compared the schmoozing and scheming of chimps with the behavior of human politicians. (Newt Gingrich, who was then speaker of the House, recommended the book to all freshman Representatives.) He has since published a slew of books; his latest are Our Inner Ape and Primates & Philosophers. He has published hundreds of scientific articles in journals including Science, Nature, and Scientific American. He is also the editor or co-editor of nine scientific volumes.

De Waal is a professor in the psychology department of Emory University and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center; he is a member of the National Academy of Sciences as well as the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences.

De Waal has generously agreed to field questions from Freakonomics readers, so bring him your best in the comments section below. (I for one would like to know whether prostitution is widely practiced by primates.)

As with past Q&A’s, his answers will be published here shortly.

Addendum: Frans answers your questions here.

Troy Camplin, Ph.D.

What can we learn about xenophobia/racism, out-group violence, and the source of violence among groups from chimpanzee and bonobo behaviors? How common is violence within and between groups in chimpanzees and bonobos, compared to humans? What are the sources and causes of such violence?

Also, I have some questions about the evolution of language. Do you have any theories about how language evolved from a non-speaking species like chimapnzees and bonobos (or, our common ancestors, to be more accurate). Is there anything in chimpanzee and/or bonobo behavior which you think gives us some insight into how language evolved? I have a theory involving communication, the ability to narrate (necessary in species which hunt and play), and neoteny, but I am curious about whatever ideas you may have.


People often expect that their family members will be biased on their behalf over strangers when the family member is handing out limited resources, but will become angry if they find out that the resources being given to them actually came at the cost of harming or stealing from those same strangers. Have you ever seen a primate attack an ingroup member for breaking a social rule against an outgroup member?

I've read arguments in defense of human use of animals for the sake of loyalty towards ingroup needs, but especially in the case of killing the animal, isn't this more a case of actually stealing resources from outgroups for the sake of ingroups (rather than simply giving resource preference for ingroups)?


What are your views on the current Homo Floresiensis vs microcephalic-sufferer debate? If it turns out that relic populations have survived (ie, Ebu Gogo/Orang Pendek sightings), what do you think the impact will be for primatology?

And a quick word to tell you how much I've enjoyed and been enlightened and enlivened by your books and research. Thank you.


Do promiscuous gay men and bonobos have anything in common?


Are baby monkeys as helpless and dependent on their mothers (or other adults) as human babies?

Dave W

What "imaginative" abilities do chimps have? (Day/night dreaming, intuitive, inventive, or other behaviors). How do these exhibit themselves?
Whats the social response from the family/tribe to those individuals or their different behaviors?



Is there any evidence that any primates recognize their mortality - by which I mean not only that it is possible for them to die, but that they will inevitably die?


What benefits are there to non-human primate research over research on other animals (rats, fruit flies, etc.)? What shortcomings are there in applying non-human primate research to humans? How are humans most different than other primates?

What kind of trade practices do non-human primates exhibit inside and outside of the lab? How do they assign and enforce property rights? What factors make them more likely to barter and exchange rather than pillage and plunder?

What research finding(s) in your career do you consider to be most interesting? Also, what research finding(s) do you consider to have the greatest implications?


Tammy G.

Possibly the dumbest question: have you observed primates engaged in incestuous sexual behavior? if so, is it ignored, rewarded, or punished by the social group?


Have you observed any signs of an aging primate brain effecting behavior in your studies of primates?


So when a monkey reaches into a small hole to
grab rice grain-sized food or material, do
they really hold on to what they've got to
whatever detrament? LIKE THE PATRIOT ACT?


What he would consider to be the most differing psychological trait(s) between humans and other primates.


I would like to know if any primate can be taught any sustained, rhythmic, gravitationally constrained movement behavior lasting for 10 seconds (minimum) to 1 minute (maximum) without missing a beat. The speed must be at the rate of 450-550 msec per step.
For example: jumping up and down in place, marching in place, stepping 2 steps up onto then 2 steps down off of a stool, or walking 2 steps forward then 2 steps backwards.

Do any primates show the "stepping reflex" present in neonates?

It's my opinion that one significant measure of our human-ness, differentiating us from other living animals, is our ability to come into sustained, rhythmic entrainment with gravity.


Do other primates suffer from depression?


To what degree do the social qualities of a particular primate vary from group to group? To put it another way, are there observable "cultural differences", between, for instance, different ape clans? And if so, is there any analogy here to the differences between human societies? Do apes ever encounter unfamiliar ape customs that the find amusing? offensive? Hopefully I'm not making fool of myself.


What kind of mental illnesses you do find in primates who are caged for experimental use by humans? Thanks.


I've heard that certain tribes of monkeys will intentionally wage wars with other tribes, apparently for the single purpose of establishing camaraderie within the tribe -- of developing bonds with one another. Is this true? If so, why do you suppose war is the agent by which these bonds are effected, as opposed to other methods of bonding?


Does religiously-motivated rejection of evolution (e.g. creationism) ever get in your way when working?


Do primates exhibit any bullying or teasing? Would a disfigured primate be excommunicated? Taken care of?


I apologize if this is an issue that has already been explored into the ground, but do the primates you study engage in "artistic" or aesthetic pursuits? "Artistic" can be defined as broadly as necessary.