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Reasons For Optimism (Frans de Waal)

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Young Chimps by Tambako The Jaguar

There are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about our fellow humans these days, but starting a new year is as good a reason as any to embrace a little bit of optimism.

An obvious way to proceed is by appreciating the progress recently made that, due to its gradual pace, has been largely imperceptible. A noted example involves Frans de Waal, the noted primatologist and writer.

Frans has been urging us to focus our attention on the animal kingdom for years now, through such books as Chimpanzee Politics, The Age of Empathy, The Bonobo and the Atheist and, most recently, Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?

These books, I must confess, hardly produce unequivocally positive sentiments, filled as they are with untold examples of our collective sense of grandiosity and hubris as we continue to dogmatically maintain our own superiority – emotionally, intellectually and ethically – to the other nonhuman life that surrounds us, often in the face of much concrete evidence to the contrary.

Most of Frans’ research career has been devoted to carefully probing this very evidence.  After years of observation, he has determined, for example, that many animals exhibit clear signs of what we would unhesitatingly call moral behavior:

“Many of the things that we think we design by ourselves, by thinking and logic, were actually already there. We’re very good at putting our rational labels on things. The sense of justice and the sense of fairness, for instance: we say that that is something we came up with, but it’s based on much more basic tendencies that we can observe in other animals. For example, in our primate studies we studied the sense of fairness. When we first discovered that monkeys have a sense of fairness – that they care about what you get as opposed to what I get, and they get upset if they get less than somebody else. There were philosophers who were quite upset with that result. They had decided in their minds, through very top-down thinking, that this sense of fairness is achieved through reasoning.”

Well, upsetting philosophers is not, all things considered, all that difficult. More to the point, however, is that such conclusions sit rather uncomfortably with vast numbers of others. As a scientist, however, Frans quite rightly doesn’t care. He is not in the business of determining what makes us feel comfortable, but rather simply ascertaining what is. And once you begin focusing your energies in that direction, it’s only natural to go beyond examining chimpanzee behavior and start looking in the mirror.

“Let’s say I claim that humans are inherently pro-social, in the sense that we take pleasure in helping others. That’s something we can test.

“There’s a lot of discussion about altruism and pro-social tendencies that have arisen in the last 10 years, and the economists found that humans are quite a bit more pro-social and cooperative than they had thought.”


Frans is referring here to a large body of empirical evidence that social scientists have built up using techniques like “the ultimatum game”, where people are asked to divide (real) amounts of money between themselves and others they are randomly matched up with. Study after study has demonstrated that, contrary to the strictly rationalistic internal decision procedure of “maximizing utility functions” that classical economic theory maintains, the vast majority of people act much more altruistically, instead opting to spread wealth around much more equitably.

For those who don’t live their life through a Randian prism, this is both an intriguing and uplifting conclusion. But for Frans, it was simply a result to be exploited. And further probed.

“Recently we played exactly the same sort of game with chimpanzees, and they also ended up splitting things equally. I used to think that monkeys would care about getting less than somebody else, but not about getting more. But we find that the chimpanzees do care about getting more: sometimes chimpanzees will refuse good food if the other one doesn’t also get good food. And they also play the ultimatum game the way humans play it.

“So now if you ask me what the difference is between chimpanzees and humans in terms of fairness, I don’t know anymore. It’s not clear anymore what the difference is.”

This is a key point worth stressing, and the biggest difference between a scientific and non-scientific temperament: far from being a disaster, being surprised by a result and suddenly confronted with one’s ignorance is what every good researcher is secretly hoping for. It’s only by being forced to reconsider what we thought we knew that we can move beyond our pre-conceived notions. That way lies progress.

So here, finally, is the good news: slowly but surely, we do collectively manage to lurch along this road, eventually discarding our inappropriate, unverifiable, preconceived notions. It’s not clear how, precisely, this happens. But it clearly does. In the following clip, for example, Frans discusses how in only a couple of decades we’ve gone from condemning E.O. Wilson as a “fascist” for even daring to contemplate the biology of human behavior to routinely contrasting human actions and attitudes with those of other animals.

There are those, I well appreciate, who might argue that this is hardly a victory worth crowing about, that moving beyond calling one’s intellectual opponents fascists (at least in this instance) can not reasonably be seen as the acme of tolerance, broadmindedness, or scientific understanding.  But progress is progress.  Happy New Year.


Two short videos featuring Frans de Waal, Animal Emotions and Towards a Civilized Discussion, are freely available on our website landing page this week.

For a complete list of Ideas Roadshow videos with Frans de Waal, click here. The eBook called On Atheists and Bonobos contains the unabridged Ideas Roadshow conversation with Frans de Waal and a range of additional resources and is available on Amazon, while the podcast of our one-hour video is now freely available on iTunes.

All Ideas Roadshow videos are available for individual purchase or by subscription ($10/month, $100/year), while all eBooks are available for purchase on Amazon.  Institutional subscriptions are offered through our Academic, School and Public Library portals (for more information please contact


1 Comment

  1. […] week’s post, Reasons for Optimism, highlighted the work of famed primatologist Frans de Waal and our ever-growing, albeit gradual, […]


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