Frans de Waal
Two elephants walk together at night. (No, this isn’t a joke—it’s a scene from a wildlife reserve in Thailand.) There is heavy rain and the older elephant slips and falls in the mud. She’s unable to get up. The younger elephant, unrelated to her companion, stays with her for most of the night. The next day a group of mahouts, elephant caretakers from the wildlife reserve, try to hoist the elephant up to her feet with braces and ropes. In all the commotion—a crowd has gathered to watch the rescue—the younger elephant remains by the side of her fallen friend. The mahouts and the crowd shout for her to move out of the way, so they can get better leverage. But she won’t budge. Instead, she burrows her head under the body of the other elephant and tries to lift her up. She does this several times, risking injury in the attempts. Incredibly, the elephant appears to recognize that the mahouts want to help rather than hurt her friend. She times her pushes, or so it seemed to me, with the hoisting of the mahouts.
Until recently, biologists thought such complex behavior—behavior with an undeniable moral dimension—was exclusive to human beings. As much as anyone in the world, the primatologist Frans de Waal is responsible for changing this perception. Starting with Chimpanzee Politics—de Waal’s fascinating account of the intrigues and machinations of a chimpanzee troupe in the Arnhem Zoo—and continuing through recent books like Good Natured and Our Inner Ape, de Waal has illustrated the uncanny similarities between human beings and our primate relatives. De Waal has not restricted himself to descriptions of behavior, however. He is famous for his willingness to enter into the largely taboo world of animal emotions, where research is routinely dismissed as “anthropomorphizing.” The result is an impressive array of evidence suggesting that we are not the only species to have moral feelings.
De Waal’s research is no friend to human vanity. In the grand tradition of Galileo and Darwin, de Waal provokes those who seek to draw a clear line between human beings and everything else. But his message is an optimistic one. If human morality has deep roots in our evolutionary past, then we can expect it to be more resilient, less susceptible to the contingencies of history. Seeing morality in this light also undermines the view of human beings as inherently selfish—a view that de Waal terms “veneer theory.” Morality, according to veneer theory, is merely a recent cultural invention, a thin veneer that masks our “true” selfish animal nature. De Waal’s criticisms of this theory (which we discuss at some length below) are the topic of his most recent book, Primates and Philosophers. The book is based on lectures de Waal presented at Princeton University, and features responses to his work from four renowned philosophers and authors.
De Waal is also a remarkably hospitable interview subject. When I arrived in the morning I was treated to a tour of the primate center and a bucket of apples to throw to the chimps in their enclosures. (There are very few things I’d rather do than toss apples to chimpanzees.) After the interview, Josh Plotkin, one of de Waal’s graduate students, showed me videos of his work in Thailand—including the video depicting the elephant rescue attempt described above. That evening I was invited to de Waal’s house for a dinner highlighted by his wife, Catherine’s, hitchhiking stories and capped with a shot of “the cognac of tequilas.” The interview itself took place at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, about forty minutes north of Atlanta.
THE BELIEVER: Why do you want to hesitate if you believe that chimpanzees have gratitude and empathy, indignation, maybe, what we call the moral emotions?
FRANS DE WAAL: They have the moral emotions, yes. You can see gratitude, outrage, a sense of fairness—you can see parallels and equivalences in all the great apes. But to get to morality you need more than just the emotions. So yes, empathy is a good thing to have. And I cannot imagine how humans could have morality without empathy, but what morality adds to that, for example, is what Adam Smith termed the “impartial spectator.” You need to be able to look at a situation, and make a judgment about that situation even though it doesn’t affect you yourself. So I can see an interaction between two humans and say this one is wrong and this one is right. I’m not convinced that chimpanzees have this kind of distance in their judgments. They certainly have judgments about what they do and how they interact with others. And how others treat them. I’m sure they have opinions about that, about how to react to that, but whether they have opinions about more abstract interactions around them and a concept about what kind of society they want to live in. Do they have a concept about fairness between others, or do they only care about fairness for themselves? That kind of distance that you see in human moral reasoning. I’m not sure you’ll find that in a chimpanzee.
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Illustration by Tony Millionaire
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