Frans de Waal, primatologist who argued that monkeys also have culture, shame and gender roles – obituary

Dr. Frans de Waal at a primate research center in Atlanta, Georgia, 2007 – JACK KEARSE

Frans de Waal, who has died of cancer at the age of 75, was a leading Dutch-American primatologist whose research not only changed our understanding of the animal world but also raised important questions about the human condition.

For De Waal, as for other evolutionary biologists since Darwin, chimpanzees, bonobos, macaques and humans are simply different species of monkeys, but according to De Waal they share more characteristics than is commonly believed.

In a series of books, de Waal argued that while animal primates, like humans, can be violent and aggressive, they are also capable of empathy and altruism and have a concept of fairness that underlies the human moral compass. Although the stereotypically aggressive alpha male sometimes rises to the top in chimpanzee society, his reign is usually short-lived and ends with his murder or exile. The most common and successful alphas “tend to not necessarily be the biggest, strongest, and baddest around… Most alphas protect the underdog, keep the peace, and reassure those in need.”

Chimpanzees, he discovered, are even capable of guilt and shame, emotions once thought to be exclusively human. ‘The standard idea of ​​humanity as the only life form that has made the step from the natural to the cultural domain’, De Waal stated, ‘is in urgent need of correction.’

Frans de Waal in 2021Frans de Waal in 2021

Frans de Waal in 2021 – Catherine Marin

At first these were provocative views, not so much because they offended the religious idea that only humans bear the image of God, but because they contradicted progressive theories that humans are born blank, unencumbered by biological determinism, and free to to design. their own behavior – an assumption considered by some to be indispensable to any hope of curing society’s ills. De Waal was also sometimes accused of anthropomorphism: attributing human characteristics to animals based on scant evidence. He responded that the problem was human exceptionalism.

De Waal never shied away from controversy. His 2013 book The Bonobo and the Atheist asked whether religious belief was an essential part of human morality. He concluded that morality comes from within and is part of human nature; the role of religion is secondary.

Then, in his latest book Different: What Apes Can Teach Us About Gender (2022), he fearlessly entered into one of the most charged debates of our time.



His central premise was that men and women behave differently and that these differences have a biological basis. “When scientists studied how monkeys respond to toys, they found that their choices are not sexually neutral,” he wrote. “It turns out that monkeys mimicked the gendered preferences of human children. Cars, trucks and balls were chosen more by men; females preferred pupae.”

If gender roles have a biological basis, the skills these roles imply must still be acquired through learning and imitation. Female ape orphans in zoos often have no idea what to do with newborns as adults: a female bonobo growing up in a human home was baffled by the males with obvious erections she encountered when she met her own kind.

‘Gender fluidity’ is now common in both animal and human societies. Bonobos, who are genetically as close to humans as chimpanzees, often have sex, much of it homosexual, and even if a particular trait is selected for in one sex, it will also be present in members of the other gender, for a less important but still important gender. rank; In all primate species there are males with more feminine characteristics and feminine tomboys. The flexibility to change social roles increases chances of survival.

As in human societies, there are also “outliers” who do not conform to gender stereotypes: a female chimpanzee named Donna pulled up her hairy coat like a male, enjoyed wrestling play with alpha males and showed no interest in mating with males. ; a capuchin monkey named Lonnie had sexual relations that were exclusively homosexual. De Waal estimated that between five and ten percent of chimpanzee populations are “gender non-conforming apes.”

However, unlike in human society, chimpanzees and other animal primates fully accept this diversity. With animals, De Waal said, “I don’t find the kind of intolerance that we have in human societies.”

Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?

Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?

One of seven boys, Franciscus Bernardus Maria “Frans” de Waal was born on October 29, 1948 in s’Hertogenbosch, in the Netherlands, where he trained as a zoologist and ethologist at the universities of Nijmegen, Groningen and in Utrecht, where he completed a PhD course under biologist Jan van Hooff, with a thesis entitled “Agonistic interactions and relationships between cynomolgus monkeys”, on aggressive behavior and alliance formation in macaques.

Subsequent research with the world’s largest captive colony of chimpanzees, at the Arnhem Zoo, became the basis for his first book, Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes (1982), which compared the behavior of chimpanzees involved in power struggles with that of human politicians. and provided the first description of primate behavior in terms of planned social strategies, reconciliation, and coalition formation. Chimpanzees, he revealed, often get together after fights and kiss and make up. Newt Gingrich would put De Waal’s book on the reading list he gave to new Republicans in the US House of Representatives in 1994.

In 1981, de Waal moved to the United States to join the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center, from where he moved in 1991 to Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, where he became professor of primate behavior in the department of psychology and director of the Living Left. Center of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center.

For more than forty years, De Waal has shattered long-held ideas about what it means to be an animal and a human being in scientific articles and a series of popular books. In 2007, Time Magazine included him in its list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Mom's last hugMom's last hug

Mom’s last hug

Much of the popular appeal of his books lay in the anecdotes. He wrote about how two gray male chimpanzees, normally sworn enemies, threw their arms around each other’s shoulders to form a barrage between a newborn baby and a threatening young alpha male, and about a bonobo named Kuni who picked up a wounded starling and climbed a tree. , spread the bird’s wings and then released it.

Perhaps the most moving story, told in Mama’s Last Hug (2019), was about the last meeting between an aging chimpanzee matriarch in Arnhem Zoo and Jan van Hooff, who had studied her for more than forty years. Although Mom was potentially dangerous on her deathbed, Van Hooff cautiously approached.

According to De Waal, the chimpanzee sensed his trepidation and hugged him, hooting softly in his ear and tapping her fingertips on his neck and the back of his head, just as she would soothe a scared baby chimpanzee. She died shortly afterwards. Images of their farewell have been viewed more than 10 million times online.

In addition to many honors, de Waal was Knight in the Order of the Netherlands Lion and elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the US National Academy of Sciences.

In 1980, de Waal married Catherine Marin, who survives him.

Frans de Waal, born October 29, 1948, died March 14, 2024

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