Frans de Waal Answers Your Primate Questions

Frans de Waal

We recently solicited your questions for primatologist Frans de Waal. Of all his accomplishments, one of the greatest has been his ability to so well communicate his scholarly findings to a wide audience. Here is one compelling piece of advice he offered on that subject: “Keep the reader interested, whatever it takes, so long as you don’t violate the truth.”

His answers below, which openly discuss (inter alia) how polygamist sects mimic the mating systems of animals, why bonobos eat after sex, and his opinion of “God-questioning rants,” definitely stay true to his philosophy. He also shows a keen understanding of economics when discussing how monkeys, just like some people, exhibit “inequity aversion” — a sure sign of irrationality if profit-maximizing is the goal.

Thanks to Frans for his fascinating answers, and to all of you for your very good questions.

Q: Do primate species other than bonobo monkeys use sex as a form of communication/bonding/intimacy vs. purely procreational purposes?

A: Bonobos offer the best example of non-reproductive sex. They use sex at the drop of a hat for reasons that, most of the time, seem social — such as during a reconciliation after a fight, or when they anticipate food competition. They use sex to diffuse tension: after the sex they share the food. Bonobos are our closest animal relatives together with chimpanzees.*

How much bonobos differ from chimpanzees was highlighted by a recent experiment in which apes were presented with a platform that they could pull close by working together. When food was placed on the platform, the bonobos clearly outperformed the chimpanzees in getting a hold of it.

The presence of food normally induces rivalry, but the bonobos engaged in sexual contact, played together, and happily shared the food side by side. The chimpanzees, in contrast, were unable to overcome their competition.

Outside bonobos, there are many other animals that engage in sex even if reproduction is impossible, such as when the female is pregnant, or between members of the same sex. Also here, the sex serves a bonding function, or to signal dominance. So, the idea that sex is intended for reproduction and should therefore be used exclusively for reproduction (an argument used by the Catholic church against condom use) is incorrect for many animals, as it is for our own species.

* Bonobos and chimps are not monkeys, but apes. Apes are large primates with large brains, no tails, flat chests, and shoulders. Monkeys are smaller, have tails, and often a more protruding face (snout). Humans are obviously more like apes than like monkeys.

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

A: I don’t experience this kind of resistance in science, in which evolutionary theory is obviously the dominant paradigm. Creationists sometimes try to create the impression that lots of scientists have their doubts about the theory, but I have yet to meet such scientists. I’d be surprised if more than 0.1 percent of active research biologists have such doubts.

When I came to this country, over twenty-five years ago, I was amazed that creationism was still taken seriously, and assumed that it would blow over. It never did, of course. I can’t help but look at it as a left-over of a medieval mind-set unresponsive to overwhelming counter-evidence.

At the same time, I must say that I don’t think the recent wave of God-questioning rants have helped much. They have polarized the issue, whereas in my mind it is eminently possible to look at religion as a collective value system and at science as telling us how the physical world operates. Even though I am not religious myself, I think the conflict between science and religion is unnecessary and overblown.

Q: Is yours the lab that did the grape vs. cucumber study? The monkeys got either a grape or a cucumber for doing a task …

A: Yes, together with Sarah Brosnan, we did a study in which capuchin monkeys received either a grape or a piece of cucumber for a simple task.

If both monkeys got the same reward, there never was a problem. Grapes are by far preferred (as real primates, like us, they go for sugar content), but even if both received cucumber, they’d perform the task many times in a row.

However, if they received different rewards, the one who got the short end of the stick would begin to waver in its responses, and very soon start a rebellion by either refusing to perform the task or refusing to eat the cucumber.

This is an “irrational” response in the sense that if profit-maximizing is what life (and economics) is about, one should always take what one can get. Monkeys will always accept and eat a piece of cucumber whenever we give it to them, but apparently not when their partner is getting a better deal. In humans, this reaction is known as “inequity aversion.”

I actually don’t think the response is irrational at all, but related to the fact that in a cooperative system, one needs to watch what kind of investment one makes and what one gets in return. If your partners always ends up getting a greater share, this means that you’re being taken advantage of. So, the rational thing to do is withhold cooperation until the reward division improves.

This holds an important message for American society which is becoming less fair by the day.

The Gini-index (which measures income inequality) keeps rising and is now more in line with that of third-world countries than of other industrialized nations. If monkeys already have trouble accepting income inequality, you can imagine what it does to us. It creates great tensions within a society, and we know that tensions affect psychological and physical well-being. Some attribute the dismal health statistics of Americans (now #42 in the world’s longevity ranking) to the social frictions of an unfair society (see Richard Wilkinson, 2005: The Impact of Inequality).

Q: Do promiscuous gay men and bonobos have anything in common?

A: Bonobos often engage in sex with same-sex partners, but they’re not gay in that they also have sex with the opposite sex. They’re “bi.” They seek sex often for social reasons, to reduce tensions, and to form friendships. I am not sure that this also applies to human gay promiscuity, or whether the latter is purely pleasure-oriented.

Q: Do you think that many of the results you and your collaborators have found would be similar if the experiments were done in the wild?

A: The relation between fieldwork and captive work on primates is an important one.

True, our grape-versus-cucumber test cannot be conducted with wild monkeys for the simple reason that they’re not used to receiving food from humans. It is unlikely, however, that the striking psychological mechanism that we observed, leading to great agitation in the monkeys, comes out of the blue.

As said, I look at it as evolved in the context of cooperation, mainly to ensure commensurate rewards for efforts. So, I expect the same inequity aversion in dogs and wolves, but not cats (which are solitary hunters, and shouldn’t care much about what others get).

Cooperation has been observed among wild capuchins. They sometimes work together to capture (and eat) giant squirrels or coati pups. After the hunt, they enjoy the spoils — which is where reward division comes in.

The fact that capuchins are capable of cooperation hints at the right evolutionary impetus for inequity aversion.

I know, in fact, of no untrained skills discovered in captivity that have never been found in the same species in the wild. Tool-use, for example, was first known of zoo apes, and everyone said that this doesn’t count — until of course wild apes also were shown to use tools.

Or, take reconciliation behavior, which I discovered in a zoo colony of chimpanzees — and everyone said that obviously wild primates wouldn’t do such a thing. But we now have data on close to thirty different primates that reconcile after fights (and also non-primates, such as dolphins and hyenas), and the evidence includes wild monkeys and apes.

I do believe, however, that captive studies can never replace studies in the field. They just have different insights to offer, such as with the studies of chimpanzee cultures.

Many chimpanzee groups in Africa have their own unique traditions, such as nut-cracking or social customs. The field workers speculate they learn these behaviors from each other through imitation. They can’t prove this, however. This is where captive studies come in, as we are capable of testing what apes can learn. Our studies strongly support the field work in that we have shown apes capable of picking up new skills from each other.

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

A: All primates are characterized by a long dependency — in monkeys, such as macaques and baboons, usually the first two years. But even after this, the bond is maintained, and the mother provides support and grooming.

In the apes, the period of dependence is quite a bit longer. Nursing lasts for four, sometimes five years, and the mother carries her young first on her belly, then on her back. Given the load this represents, she can’t have too many offspring. So, she has one baby at a time, and the inter-birth interval in the wild is five or six years. Young chimpanzees become relatively independent by eight, but aren’t considered adult until they are over twelve years old.

Q: 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?

A: Very timely question. Whereas I look at the polygamist sect in Texas with intrigue, as they seem to mimic the mating system of quite a few animals (sending out young males so that the dominant males can freely reproduce with lots of females), the incestuous man in Austria doesn’t fit anything I know about primates, because all animals have ways of avoiding inbreeding. There is, in fact, very little inbreeding even at zoos, where sometimes daughters grow up with males who could be their fathers.

The general rule in primates is that one sex or the other leaves the group at puberty. In many monkeys, the males leave and seek another group. With apes (and overwhelmingly in human societies, too), it are the females who leave. You can imagine that this takes care of a lot of inbreeding opportunities, as the migrants go find groups where they meet unrelated members of the opposite sex.

On top of this, animals follow the so-called Westermarck effect, which is also thought to apply to humans. The rule is that individuals who grow up together develop sexual aversion for each other. Siblings or mother-son combinations just don’t have a great desire to have sex. Westermarck formulated this idea long ago, and it has been tested with many animals, and generally holds up. There is also evidence of Kibbutz and Chinese marriage data that in humans, too, individuals who grow up together, even if they’re unrelated, avoid sexual relations.

Q: How much does culture vary between chimp troops? If a chimp moves from one troop to another, will it teach the new troop anything of its old culture?

A: There are instances in the wild of female chimpanzees entering a new community from the outside, and bringing new knowledge with them. They don’t bring radical change, but usually small steps, such as the female knowing a certain nut that can be eaten and that her host community doesn’t touch.

Q: Can any primate can be taught any sustained, rhythmic, gravitationally constrained movement behavior lasting for 10 seconds to 1 minute without missing a beat? (The speed must be at the rate of 450 to 550 milliseconds 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.

Do any primates show the “stepping reflex” present in neonates?

A: This question is a bit too precise for me to answer, but of course many animals have an excellent sense of rhythm, since this is part of their locomotion.

Look at the regular wing-beat of many birds (or butterflies, for that matter). A large animal, like an elephant, could never move as elegantly as it does if it didn’t coordinate the rhythm of its four legs carefully, which requires rhythm.

Chimpanzees drum, and they can do so in a very nice and steady rhythm. They usually don’t do so for long, but occasionally they get really into it and keep hitting a hollow object for minutes on end until it drives everybody crazy.

Perhaps the best video of a bird with a great sense of rhythm is the one of Snowball, the cockatoo, who seems to have an extraordinary sense of rhythm. Pronking or stotting Thompson gazelles also come to mind: they jump up and down in a display that is believed to signal their health to potential predators, who will go look for easier prey.

Q: What did you learn from Desmond Morris?

A: Great question. Desmond Morris is the most underrated behavioral biologist (ethologist) of his generation. His books have shaped the view of many, because he openly discussed, with great humor and flair, the human-animal connection before we had sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and the like.

He also formulated ideas that others have adopted (stolen?) without any reference to him, such as that human talking is a bit like primate grooming, or that the human family arose so as to reduce competition among males, allowing them to go hunt together in the knowledge that each one would have a mate to return to.

These are very interesting ideas, albeit a bit untestable, but the main point is that Morris opened up the discussion about human origins and how they relate to animal behavior. He did all of this in a way that people understood and wanted to read.

But being such a popular “vulgarizer,” real scientists sometimes look down upon him.

The history of his popularity is interesting. I heard from his publisher that Morris had written many books before The Naked Ape, his giant 1960′s best seller (with a for-those-days very provocative title and cover). But those previous books hadn’t done too well.

He would entertain visitors at the London Zoo with a popular overview of comparisons between human and animal behavior. Everyone thought it was funny and deep and informative, and after his publisher had heard him speak, he said, “There’s your book!”

He wrote it in three months, I believe, because it was already all in his head.

I admire the guy, because it took guts to write what he wrote. As a student, I learned about his book because my professors kept warning us not to read Desmond Morris. The result was, of course, that we felt we had to.

What I learned: Keep the reader interested, whatever it takes, so long as you don’t violate the truth.

Q: I recently learned that there is a simple, funny test that helps to find out whether a toddler is self-conscious or not; simply put a red dot on his or her nose in front of a mirror and see whether or not the child tries to wipe it off. Now of course, that’s only self-consciousness; it doesn’t tell you how aware the child is of others and of the differences between those others and itself. This made me wonder, how self-conscious are primates?

A: Mirror self-recognition is tested this way. Children pass this test between 18 to 24 months, and the only animals thus far which have passed are the four great ape species (including chimpanzees), dolphins, and elephants. We conducted the elephant test at the Bronx zoo with a jumbo-sized mirror, and put some of the videos of this experiment on the web.

Q: Do you have any thoughts, personal or professional, on the so-called aquatic ape hypothesis of human evolution? (Posted by Sir Alister Hardy.)

A: It’s an honor to receive this question from you, who developed the hypothesis. I find that the idea has many intriguing elements to it, such as the subcutaneous fat layer and diving reflex that marks us humans. But until I see overwhelming evidence of human ancestors who lived near the water edge and survived mainly on aquatic plants and animals, it remains a hypothesis.

Finding one or two such settlements would in fact be insufficient, because for water to have been a major evolutionary force in the origin of humans, I’d guess we would need to find that during a certain time period this was the only way our ancestors survived.

Thus far, the evidence isn’t there. But perhaps you feel that the paleontologists haven’t been looking in the right places?

Long ago (in Peacemaking among Primates, 1989), I made some tongue-in-cheek speculations about bonobos as aquatic apes. They are the only apes to enter water voluntarily, seemingly enjoying it. There were rumors at the time that they’d walk bipedally into shallow rivers, which is a logical thing to do if you want to keep your head above the surface.

In recent years, I have heard few such stories, so perhaps they were exaggerated. But there is in fact footage of such behavior at a Belgian zoo.

For me the aquatic ape theory is not dead, but in great need of further evidence.

Q: Can an animal be “immoral” or are they “amoral”?

A: That’s a BIG question, which I can’t answer in a brief note. An organism can only be immoral if it is part, and adheres to, an agreed-upon system of morality, as we do. I don’t believe that chimpanzees, or other nonhuman animals, are moral beings in the sense that we are.

But to call them amoral isn’t correct either. Amoral means a total absence of morality, and it is obvious that the building blocks of morality (empathy, sympathy, cooperation, social rules) can be found in animals other than us.

The view that the natural world is “amoral” comes from Charles Darwin‘s contemporary, T. H. Huxley, who felt that nature could never have produced human morality. He saw nature as inherently nasty.

I strongly disagree with this bleak view, as did Darwin himself (in The Descent of Man), but Huxley’s views are unfortunately still very much with us. I wrote an entire book to counter them: Primates & Philosophers.

Leave A Comment

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COMMENTS: 59


  1. FI says:

    Interesting discussion. Thanks.

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  2. Sara says:

    Very neat ideas and answers to the questions. I plan to read Primates & Philosophers soon!

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  3. Michelle says:

    Great post. Animal research is fascinating.

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  4. Patricia says:

    I had the opportunity to spend some time with Dr. deWaal when I worked for the National Chimpanzee Sanctuary. He is amazing – his opinions and observations changed the way I think about animals and humans. Thank you for this wonderful interview – I especially appreaciate Dr. de Wall’s comments on morality.

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  5. Jonny_eh says:

    Great answers. He’s a brilliant scientist and writer. The only area I disagree with is the old canard that science explains how the world works, and religion tells us how to behave, and that no conflict exists. If only…
    Unfortunately, most religions also make highly dubious fact claims, such as the age of the earth, our origins, miracles, etc.
    While it’s great that religious moderates are able to avoid cognitive dissonance, somehow, and accept evolution and the book of genesis at the same time, most people are forced to choose.
    I choose science. (The other option stinks, since it requires me to stick my head up my arse and ignore evidence).

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  6. Collie says:

    I was just pointed at this blog by a friend — fascinating! I do have one question which has always bothered me, though: if it’s the culture-transmitting females that traditionally leave their natal troops to travel to another, then how do the extended matrilines I keep reading about in the bonobo and chimp studies get established? I remember one instance where there was a fight and the attacked female’s sisters, mother, aunts, and grandmother all came to her aid. How could that happen if the females are always leaving? Or is it that the females leave only when the troop has become too large, and there’s not enough food any more?

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  7. James Cronin says:

    5. The book of Genesis is allegorical in nature and not written in the historical sense. It is quite easy to see science as the “how” and religion as the “why”. You do not need to ignore the scientific evidence of how the world was created for it’s plentiful but you must ponder why it was created in the first place.

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  8. Erik says:

    “So, the idea that sex is intended for reproduction and should therefore be used exclusively for reproduction (an argument used by the Catholic church against condom use) is incorrect for many animals, as it is for our own species.”

    Regarding the Catholic church, the argument against condom use is because it completely shuts off procreation as a part of sex. The Church is very much of the opinion that sex can and is used as a means of bonding between married people. They should, however, always be open to conception.

    Anyhow, this article is fascinating. I also enjoyed reading the links from his extensive citations. It’s so great to stumble upon all of this!

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  9. Dooley says:

    As a former student of Dr. de Waal’s in his Emory University class, “Primate Social Psychology,” I found this discussion highly interesting and continue to be fascinated with Dr. de Waal’s constant media exposure and repeated accolades from the scientific community.

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  10. achilles3 says:

    Wonderful!
    Thank you so very much Mr. de Waal.

    I’m gonna read you (and Mr. Morris) ASAP!

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  11. Jonathan Weissman says:

    Sir Alister Hardy has been dead for 23 years.

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  12. Thomas B. says:

    On “Mirror self-recognition [of which ]the only animals thus far which have passed are the four great ape species (including chimpanzees), dolphins, and elephants.”

    Skinner had pigeons pass the test in 1981 with Epstein and Lanza.

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  13. Dan says:

    The question on the aquatic ape hypothesis was supposedly “Posted by Sir Alister Hardy.”

    How can this be? Alister Hardy died more than twenty years ago: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sir_Alister_Hardy

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  14. BY says:

    “(an argument used by the Catholic church against condom use)”

    This could not be more wrong. Ignorance like this shouldn’t be passed on as if it were true. An editors note would be appropriate here.

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  15. jimbob says:

    Alister Hardy died in 1985.

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  16. Thomas B. says:

    @14:

    Frans de Waal was not mistaken.

    I first heard this argument in Catholic school (and not just once). The argument can be traced back at least as far as Humanae Vitae, an encyclical written by Pope Paul VI, promulgated in 1968, where he argues that the sexual act must “retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.”

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  17. Carol V Hamilton says:

    I wonder if Frans de Waal has read Peter Kropotkin’s book, Mutual Aid (c. 1911), written to refute the Social Darwinism of Huxley & Spencer.

    Kropotkin argues that cooperation and mutual aid are as important to social species as competition is; he also maintains that empathy is innate in many species and is the basis of morality.

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  18. dannyboy says:

    Another jumble of useless nonsense.

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  19. Peter Helmberger says:

    Many thanks for the information. Loved it.
    But I have serious reservations re the conclusion that there should be no clash between religion and faith in god. The belief-systems of people who believe in god are open-ended in the sense that they can believe in almost anything. Facts and theory provide no bounds. This can have disastrous consequences such as martyrdom and genocide. Also, consider the evangelical support for Jewish positions re Israel v. Palestine.

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  20. Jack Baker says:

    This is a fascinating interview. Thank you for it. Would someone please respond to the Alister Hardy issue?

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  21. Conor - Ireland says:

    I haven’t missed a single post to the Freakonomics blog in about 4 months now, I wish I had missed this one… nothing to do with economics, factually innaccurate and yes, Sir Alister Hardy died in 1985…

    Mssrs Dubner and Levitt; shame on you…

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  22. Dan K says:

    Of course Alister Hardy is dead. Mr. de Waal’s response is clearly intended to be humorous — a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of the questioner’s choice of name.

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  23. Boyce Wanamaker says:

    This is a good article.

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  24. Ed F. says:

    This was a great post of fascinating subject matter. In response to post #21, “inequity aversion” is right on topic.

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  25. Toni says:

    I can’t understand those who imply this is off-topic. Human behavior and how it evolved is key to economics. As for being factual–it tickles me how laymen can have the nerve to dismiss the work of someone who has spent years of scientific study discovering and testing these things. I don’t understand, as Jonny puts it, the “head up the arse” attitude affected by so many.

    Anyway, I’m just sorry Mr. de Waal didn’t have time or space to answer more questions (like mine)!!

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  26. Joe Fitschen says:

    While science is not really equipped to deal with morality or other value questions, there is no reason that such questions cannot be dealt with as reasonably as possible (which requites an ongoing conversation). The trouble with leaving morality to religion(s) is that tradition and the yuck factor often trump reason.

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  27. BepeK says:

    Loved this article, thank you for it. One minor quibble that I have, though, is whether cats experience inequality aversion. I would say that inequality aversion (great term, by the way) is the biggest force in my cats’ lives, much more so than for my dog or any dogs that I have ever had. My cats are all about who gets the first bowl of food, who gets into my lap, who gets attention. Whoever gets the short end of the stick very clearly sulks. Anyone could observe this at my house. They can’t seem to settle on a pecking order or even a set of rules that would avoid this constant stress in their complicated little lives. I have always attributed this behavior just to intense rivalry, with no cooperation assumed.

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  28. Jeff Huggins says:

    I’ve learned a great deal from reading Frans de Waal, including his “Our Inner Ape”, “Primates and Philosophers”, and some articles about Dr. de Waal.

    I study human morality from two standpoints (the quickly-progressing scientific standpoint, and the philosophical/logical standpoint) and work to find the common ground between the two standpoints and “bridge” them into a grounded and integrated view. This integrated view is not only explanatory but also justificatory. That is, it addresses both, including (in my view) the important difference between “is” and “ought” that was briefly discussed in an earlier New York Times article on Dr. de Waal.

    I’m writing today for four reasons: First, I’d like to thank and congratulate Dr. de Waal for his work. Second, I’d like to briefly mention one aspect of my view. Third, I’d like to mention several philosophical works that, in my view, help support an integrated view of morality. (That is, these works, in conjunction with many of the recent scientific works, help move an integrated view forward.) And fourth, I’d like to mention that I would enjoy meeting with Dr. de Waal to discuss these matters in detail and advance the understanding of morality in a number of ways.

    As a quick-and-rough statement of a central aspect of my view: Morality is most foundationally “about” the sustainable and healthy survival of the human species along with plentiful biological diversity and the sustainable health of our home, planet Earth, all accomplished in a way that respects human equality (in important senses) and embraces a living and somewhat fragile planet. One (of several) important aspects of this view is that the very concepts of morality and sustainability are intimately interlinked in a deeply grounded way that is informed by both science and philosophy.

    Many scientific works (too many to list here) help inform this view. That said, I’d like to mention three philosophical works that also play important roles: Kwame Anthony Appiah’s recent “Experiments in Ethics”; Allan Gibbard’s classic “Wise Choices, Apt Feelings”; and Nicholas Maxwell’s “From Knowledge To Wisdom”.

    Again, thanks to Dr. de Waal, and I hope we have a chance to meet one day.

    Cheers,

    Jeff Huggins
    Los Gatos, California
    Author: “The Obligations Of Reason: Exploring the existence, nature, dynamics and implications of the Natural Moral System”

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  29. Jim Dandy says:

    I do hope our two great Apes in the White House read this. I’m sure they will recognize immediatly the grape vs cucumber test and the ‘inequity aversion ‘ they have engendered since they came down from their trees to banjax our great country beyond recognition.
    posted by Jim Dandy.

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  30. Frans de Waal says:

    Just a few quick replies to comments:

    * Condom use: I was raised Catholic and know what they teach. Thanks Thomas B for the quote from Humanae Vitae.
    * Sir Hardy: I tried to amuse with my opening line and closing line, which included the word “dead.” Yes, he died in 1985.
    * Kropotkin: I did read him. He was a contemporary of TH Huxley, and offered a major antidote. He was far ahead of his time on this.
    * Pigeons & mirrors: Epstein trained pigeons to peck at themselves in front of a mirror. One can train pigeons to do many things, including even to play ping pong. They don’t spontaneously recognize themselves in a mirror, though, which is what our mirror test was all about.

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  31. Adam says:

    Thomas B (#16)

    No, he is mistaken. Humanae Vitae does state that the sexual act must “retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” That does not mean that the sole purpose of sex is for reproduction. No one ever taught you that. It means that taking steps to frustrate the procreative aspect of sex is forbidden. Catholics may have sex without intending to create a child, and may choose to have sex only when they know that conception is impossible of improbable. But they cannot deliberately frustrate conception.

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  32. Adam says:

    Frans de Waal (#30)

    75% of ignorant, incorrect statements about Catholic doctrine and dogma begin “I was raised Catholic…”

    (The other 25% begin “I was an altar boy…”)

    Claiming to be knowledgable about Catholicism because you were raised as a Catholic is like me claiming to be a primatoligist because I’m a primate.

    You’re simply wrong about Humanae Vitae. The Church teaches that there are two purposes of sex: unity and procreation. The Church teaches that we must not deliberately frustrate either purpose. But sex without the intent to create a child, or when creation of a child is impossible, is perfectly licit.

    Or are you going to try to tell me that the Church forbids pregnant, postmenopausal, and infertile women from having sex?

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  33. levon says:

    This was an exceptional article and I enjoyed it thoroughly.
    The “inequity aversion” is especially interesting and I’m guessing a study of revolutions, labor unions, and home makers is full of examples.

    Corning stock hit $27. The upper management all exercised stock options, purchased stock at$4-$15, then sold at $27 the same day. That’s buy in for ~$800,000 and sell the same day for ~$4,000,000. Now I know what to call it when I spend my day reading NYT instead of doing work.

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  34. Karl says:

    Sir Alister Hardy is still alive, despite reports to the contrary.

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  35. Marisa Landau says:

    I enjoyed this piece. Why doesn’t the NY Times invite Mr. de Waal to be a more frequent contributor? Any scientist who can make science more attractive and clearer to all of us laypeople is a great asset to a newspaper and invaluable to us readers.

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  36. Woody Tanaka says:

    “The Church teaches that there are two purposes of sex: unity and procreation.”

    But the fact remains that many people were taught (by the Church, through Catholic schools, priests and nuns) that condoms are somehow bad because sex was supposedly created for the purpose of making babies. I can attest that this is what I was taught. Perhaps Dr. de Waal’s use of the word “exclusively” wasn’t entirely correct, but it certainly comports with the intent of the lessen.

    If you think it is not in accord with what the Church is supposed to teach, all I can say is that you don’t blame the student when the teacher is bad.

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  37. James says:

    The inbreeding/incest seems to ignore dogs, which are often hugely inbred, especially in breds such as German Shepherd. While this may occur in situations of human creation, they do still mate.

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  38. Joe says:

    Echoing #32, the quip on Catholic teaching is indeed incorrect, and the quote from Humanae Vitae is not saying what de Waal thinks it is saying. Even Augustine’s view on the matter – which is considerably more strict than Humanae Vitae’s – is more open than this caricature. That sex has to respect a fundamental ordering towards procreation is not taken by the Catholic Church to imply that sex can only be used for reproduction. That’s just incorrect, and a smidgen of research would correct it. This is not to say that people may not have been misinformed by parochial school teachers, but that’s hardly a scholarly source to substantiate the allegation.

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  39. Tom says:

    The Catholic dogma arguments remind me of Chritopher Hitchens bemused observation that often finds himself encountering Christians whose beliefs are quite contrary to the literal doctrines and dogmas that they claim to believe in, such that he must then explain to them the actuality of what it is that they supposedly believe.

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  40. K says:

    So if sex is only supposed to be for procreation, do Catholics believe only techincal “intercourse” is permissable, since things like anal and oral sex do not have the possibility of conception?

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  41. Diotimu C. says:

    It seems to me that anthropomorphism, while tending to appreciate the similarities among animals, also tends to depreciate the differences between animals. Anthropomorphism even tends to overlook the differences among humans, or even within one human at different moments [or within the same moment?].

    Anthropocentrism also tends to be flawed. It is often a covering euphemism for various bigotries: Ethnocentrism, family/clan-centrism, gender-centrism, class-centrism, species-centrism, egocentrism, etc. Of course, if you are only saying that, as an anthropocentric person you are merely personally interpreting something, I basically have to agree; but nobody/nothing really lives as an isolated being. There are no disconnecting walls or vacuums in the universe. We might even say that we all interpret together.

    The short comings of both anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism are overcome if our basic overview combines the empathy of the first view with the idiosyncrasy of the second view, within one overall evecocentric [evolutionary-ecology centered] vision; emphasizing both the diversity and the unity, or “many-oneness”,of nature.

    Evecocentrism means sharing the planet a lot better than humans have been sharing for the past 50,000 years or so. This, of course, means sharing both within and beyond the species. It’s so lonely and alienated to not share, to be unfriendly to even one of our fellow phenomenal-beings.

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  42. James F Traynor says:

    I recently saw a television program showing gorillas congregating in wetlands, eating the vegetation and ‘playing’ in the water. I even saw a silver back doing this. I believe they were lowland gorillas. It was part of an ongoing scientific study. I offer this in resonse to your answer on the aquatic theory.

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  43. Patricia says:

    Great Idea Ms. Landau! The NY Times should invite Dr. de Waal to be a more frequent contributor!

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  44. Jeffrey says:

    Your comments about science and religion were interesting. I think comparing science and spirituality is more interesting though, since they are really both exploring nature–one from an objective viewpoint and the other from a subjective viewpoint.

    In many cases the knowledge recorded by the ancient seers matches the scientific information arrived at another way. Many of the
    “discoveries” in physics and astronomy were detailed thousands of years ago, especially in the Vedas.

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  45. anil says:

    fabulous!!! some of the questions are questions that I had been wondering about for sometime. Look forward to reading “Primates and Philosophers”

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  46. Adam says:

    K (#40) asked:

    “So if sex is only supposed to be for procreation, do Catholics believe only techincal “intercourse” is permissable, since things like anal and oral sex do not have the possibility of conception?”

    Again, the Church does not teach that “sex is only supposed to be for procreation.” It teaches that when engaging in sexual acts, Catholics may not intentionally frustrate conception.

    Anyway, short answer: Yes. Longer answer: If it’s part of foreplay, and it eventually moves on to intercourse, probably not.

    I’m not a Thomist, and I don’t claim to have much expertise in Natural Law. But I do know that if you’re using your sexual faculties in a way that deliberately separates sex from procreation, you’re engaging in an illicit act. If, however, the point of the oral sex is to prepare for intercourse without contraception, I believe it’s permissible, but I never read anything definitive on it.

    If you really want to understand the Church’s teaching, go to the source. Read Humanae Vitae. It’s a bit of a slog if you don’t have at least a passing familiarity with Aristotle or Aquinas, but it’s certainly not as dense as the Summa.

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  47. Adam says:

    Woody Tanaka (#36)

    I can give the benefit of the doubt to someone who claims that his Catholic grade school teacher taught him something about Catholic doctrine that turned out to be incorrect. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and I won’t assume that you didn’t absorb the lesson properly, or that your memory is faulty.

    But if you’re a highly educated adult, a scientist like de Waal, you should know better than to make bold statements like “I was raised Catholic and know what they teach” based only on forty-year-old recollections of Catholic high school. He could have hedged and said that he “thought,” “believed,” or “understood” Catholic teaching to be a certain way. But he didn’t. He said that he knew.

    Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.

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  48. spumish says:

    “Be fruitful and multiply!” Darwinism explains Genesis: animals that take pleasure in behaviors tending to result in reproduction will have a good chance of getting the genes responsible for that tendency into the next generation.

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  49. alice adams says:

    #31, etc.
    I was raised at a Catholic mother’s knee. She was a victim of the fact that Big Pronouncements from Rome always got translated for simple Catholic consumption. Translators were whoever/whatever ran your church and catechism classes wherever you happened to live. We learned about sex from Catholics, not from Rome, and sex for fun was definitely a sin.

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  50. Lizette says:

    Forgive me for adding another observation about housecats, but since as a species they have the superior tactic for survival (can you name any other species that has successfully influenced a different species to provide it not only with shelter and food, but also to clean its toilet?), I’d like to tell about one of my cats.
    He was a stray in my neighborhood who chose our house and for 5 months tried to slip inside until I finally gave in to his wishes. Besides behaving elegantly and winning over our dogs by roughhousing with them, he started an unusual practice of bringing home other stray cats, some of whom were sick or badly injured. He watched over them and bathed them, and in the case of 2 tiny kittens, let them anxiously follow him everywhere and sleep with him, just as if he was their mother. This godfather cat has created a family out of whoever he rounds up out on the streets and from all the animals who skipped the shelter phase and went straight to life at home, thanks to him, I have learned about something I think of as animal nobility.

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  51. amy says:

    I’m not a Christian, and never read the source text except the excerpt here. But I think it’s pretty clear: If it’s intercourse, the part of sexual activity that can lead to conception, they may not use any type of birth control. It does not say that infertile people may not have sex.

    However, lots of people teaching the Christian rules have apparently misunderstood this. Otherwise, why would we all know what the Missionary Position is?

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  52. Susan says:

    Catholics, please let it go now.

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  53. EarlW says:

    “This holds an important message for American society which is becoming less fair by the day.”

    What’s that about?

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  54. Kiumars Lalezarzadeh, Ph.D. says:

    I have had the occasion to attend Dr. De Waal’s presentation at Psychology conference; and the comments here are as interesting as the presentations done in person. The questions and answers are wonderful.

    The part about self-recognition using mirrors and the general belief that only higher mammals are capable of passing the self-recognition test may need reconsideration. In a pilot study we did at SUNYSB we observed that a paradise fish was able to pass the “test”; the fish seems to be engaging in self-deception too which seems like a higher process than self-recognition. The fish positioned himself about the mirror at an angle to peek at his own trunk and tail but avoid his own face; then suddenly would turn / swing and strike at the mirror where his tail or trunk image had been. In a way striking at his own after image after he himself created it. An amazing self-recognition and self-deception phenomenon was documented in paradise fish needing further study. It seemed as though self-recognition and self-deception served the purpose of or became secondary for serving the purpose of aggression discharge.

    The part about use of sex for reconciliation or dominance is important. That is since reproductive drive (the ultimate procreation and survival mechanism) taking expression in sexual behaviors must precede all other drives, the expression of sexual behavior other than for reproduction is a sound relation between use of this ultimate force against destructive forces of aggression. My studies has also shown such phenomenon in fish and humans.

    The part about rhythmic movement points to the generality of certain phenotypes shared among many species. That points to the evolutionary process and purposefulness or teleology. Why should rhythmic movement be shared among all moving organisms? How come rhythmic movement is common for an end means? Doesn’t this commonality pose a difficult juncture given the controversy between grand design or random selection?

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  55. Jenny Haskins says:

    I suspect that whoever signed themselves as “Sir Alister Hardy” was confusing Alister Hardy with Sarah Hrdy, who did promulgate the theory of humans evolving as an aquatic species.

    I am suprised that Frans de Waal did not pick this mistake.

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  56. StoneGiant says:

    The rants for and against the case for an intelligent creator ignore one view of overriding significance (and likleyhood), and that is that the Bible is a poetic construction, nothing more, nothing less. Give an ape an analytical higher brain and eventuallly he will look at himself, and meditate upon his origins – and where mystery is experienced, metaphor flourishes. Can the concept of metaphor really be that hard to grasp? Furthermore, to then concretise those metaphors is to strip them of their power and purpose.

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  57. Chris O'Connor says:

    For those interested in Frans de Waal’s “Primates and Philosophers” we happen to be reading and discussing tthis book in June, July and august of 2009. On July 30, 2009 we’re hosting a live chat with Dr. de Waal in the BookTalk.org chat room.

    Please join us for a lively discussing now on the http://www.BookTalk.org forums. If you’re interested in attending the live chat you’re more than welcome, but we ask attendees to read the book in advance.

    Chris O’Connor

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  58. Tantely says:

    I’ve heard that F. De Wall will come to Mauritius this year. I’m a primatologist and I want to meet him. Could you have more information about it, please?

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  59. Evelyn Sinclair says:

    Frans de Waal has been a favorite of mine for many years. I have enjoyed and taken comfort from his books, particularly his “Peacemaking Among the Primates.” I even wrote a song called “Would You Like to be a Bonobo?” A truly refreshing article, with bits of clearheaded thinking (wisdom) on a number of topics, each of which deserves further study, for those unfamiliar with them (e.g. Desmond Morris).

    Hmmm: Ethology is what Antropology would be if we included animals in the definition of people.

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