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.

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  1. Vineeth says:

    I am interested in understanding how homosexuality functions within societies of non-human primates. Is it a kind of hedonistic exploration of sexuality or is it a specific attribute of a group of individuals? How are these individuals treated by the larger society?

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  2. Jacob says:

    How rare (or common) is murder among non-human primates?

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  3. Erika says:

    Hey! Is yours the lab that did the grape vs. cucumber study? The monkeys got either a grape or a cucumber for doing a task. When two monkeys got the same task and got paid the same, they were content with the payment. When one monkey got paid a cucumber and the other a grape, the cucumber getting monkey would more often than not reject the cucumber – flinging it back at the researcher – knowing that their task performance clearly rated the better prize, and not getting it made their displeasure at the inequity known. It makes me think that a sense of fairness is ingrained in the more primal parts of our brains.

    So in your money experiments, have you tried paying the monkeys different payments for the same task? If so, how did they react? Have the monkeys shared money? If one got more money than another, would the affluent monkey share? Have they bought stuff for other monkeys? Or have they only bought off other monkeys for a quickie? Have you had them buy toys? Do they share or hoard toys that they buy? Does the one who dies with the best toys win?

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  4. WS says:

    Do other primate species use sex as a form of communication/bonding/intimacy vs. purely procreational purposes? I learned about bonobo monkeys, but do other species exhibit such sexual behavior?

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  5. Ari says:

    Does your research with chimpanzees speak at all to what an effective balance might be between deterrence and appeasement in dealing with insurgencies? We hear comments all the time from political “experts” along the lines of “you’re just begetting more hatred…” that may be accurate in some cases but seem to have little basis in either game theory or behavioral psychology.

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  6. JCR says:

    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.

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  7. Jeff says:

    Do different primate social groups speak different ‘languages’ like different societies of humans do? Also, how do primates deal with ‘foreign cultures’ of other primate groups of the same species? Do they benefit from a cross-cultural exchange of ideas or are they more likely to outright reject anything strange?

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  8. Thor says:

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

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