I Get My Inspiration From Watching Animals: An Interview with Frans de Waal

by Avery Avrakotos, Education and Policy Manager

Influential biologist and primatologist Frans B. M. de Waal, PhD, will present the Henry Spira Memorial Lecture at PRIM&R’s 2015 Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) Conference, which is being held March 17-20, in Boston, MA. Conference attendees can look forward to his address, titled Primate Social Intelligence, on Friday, March 20.

Dr. de Waal is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Primate Behavior in the psychology department of Emory University, and the director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, GA. In preparation for the conference, I connected with Dr. de Waal to discuss his work and what he has learned from his experiences studying primates.

Avery Avrakotos (AA): When and how did you first become involved with studying social intelligence in primates?
Frans de Waal (FW): I am interested in all sorts of animals. I used to work as a student with rats and birds, and have always kept tropical fish, so it was logical for me to go into biology and ethology. Ethology, the European approach to animal behavior, focused more on natural behavior than, say, the behaviorism of B. F. Skinner, which focuses on behavior that is human-imposed through training. My background in ethology made me more open to animal cognition than most American students of animal behavior, who were (and sometimes still are) indoctrinated in the behaviorist paradigm, according to which the animal mind doesn’t really exist and animal emotions are irrelevant. I have never related well to this mechanistic view.

AA: How has studying primates transformed your view of human morality?
FW: I get my inspiration always from watching animals, not from grand theories. So, I noticed that chimpanzees console victims of aggression: they embrace and kiss them, calm them down, groom them. I called it consolation behavior. Then I learned from child psychologists that this kind of behavior is considered a measure of empathy. They ask a family member to cry and see how young children respond. Their friendly responses are called “empathetic concern,” and are behaviorally almost identical to those of the apes. Also, in both apes and children, females do more of it than males. From that moment on, I was interested in animal empathy, because clearly these reactions are not limited to our species. From there, it was not hard to start making connections with morality, since empathy and compassion are recognized pillars of human morality. In the course of my career, I added other aspects of morality for comparison, such as following social rules and the sense of fairness, leading to our famous fairness experiment, in which monkeys receive different rewards for the same task.

AA: At the 2015 IACUC Conference, you will be participating in a discussion about your book, The Bonobo and the Atheist. Can you tell me a little about the book? What compelled you to write it? What key message do you hope readers take away from it? 
FW: I had written about the evolution of morality before. But I encounter many opinions along the lines of “God gave us morality,” or “morality and religion are one and the same.” So, I felt I needed to revisit morality and add a discussion of religion to it. I am not religious, but also not anti-religious the way some radical atheists are. In my book, the bonobo “discusses” these topics with the atheist, trying to explain that morality is much older than religion, hence cannot be claimed by religion. Yet, I believe that being vehemently opposed to religion is not a constructive attitude either. You will have to read the book to see how I navigate these difficult waters.

AA: What ethical issues do you face in your work studying social intelligence in primates? 
FW: I myself do not do any invasive studies, but I do work with captive primates, and some find captivity by itself an ethical issue. I cannot do much about the captivity of our chimpanzees—we cannot return them to the wild—but I do try to give them the best possible conditions and keep the experiments fun. Our chimpanzees at Yerkes live outdoors in a large grassy enclosure and participate in our tests on a volunteer basis. We never force them to participate. They love the tests we do, so we usually have no lack of willing subjects.

At the moment, we are in a period of transition. Many chimpanzees are “retiring” from biomedical research. I am on the board of directors at Chimp Haven (a partly NIH-sponsored sanctuary in Louisiana), and we are ready to receive the hundreds of retirees.

My personal opinion is that social housing is essential for primates. I am opposed to single housing, and don’t consider pair housing a real solution. Primate centers in this country will need to rethink the way they house their animals, not in terms of cage size or cleanliness, but in terms of social life. Providing social animals with a social life is, in my opinion, the very least we can do for them. I consider it the ultimate and most natural form of environmental enrichment. With a little bit of training, you can still work with these animals individually, it really isn’t as hard as some think it is.

AA: In a recent article in PLOS Biology, you shared your view that research with chimpanzees should be limited to the types of studies that would be appropriate to conduct with humans. How has your work studying the social intelligence of primates affected your position on this issue?
FW: I have a very high opinion of the intelligence of the apes, and obviously the closer an animal is to us the easier we find it to apply our moral attitudes to them. This is a rather anthropocentric view, and perhaps unfair to lots of other species, but it is how we humans roll. As a result, I have always been uncomfortable with chimpanzees as biomedical guinea pigs. Over the years, there have been fewer and fewer reasons to use them for this purpose, which is why Institute of Medicine recently expressed the opinion that invasive studies on chimpanzees should be phased out. I am very much in agreement with this decision.

AA: What advice do you have for members of the public who are interested in learning more about social intelligence in primates? Are there any resources that you would recommend? 
FW: There are many books on primate behavior. For the general public, I would recommend popular books by Jane Goodall, Robert Sapolsky, and myself.

For more information about the 2015 IACUC Conference, please visit our website