Obituary of Frans de Waal

<span>Frans de Waal with chimpanzees at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Illinois, in 2006. </span><span>Photo: Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service/Getty Images</span>” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ dfa5e2661432″ data-src= “–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ 2661432″/></div>
<p><figcaption class=Frans de Waal with chimpanzees at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Illinois, in 2006. Photo: Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service/Getty Images

A male chimpanzee with an eye on alpha status will put aside his usual indifference towards babies and go around tickling them, the better to ingratiate himself with their mothers. The vote-winning tactic, variations of which will be on display at town halls everywhere in this super-election year, is one of many examples of social strategy that Dutch-American primatologist Frans de Waal documented in his half-century of observing non-human primates.

De Waal, who died at the age of 75, was not afraid to make the comparison with humans explicit. He could be counted on to highlight the monkey in us, from George W. Bush’s “bipedal swagger” to White House press secretary Sean Spicer hiding in the bushes from reporters and Donald Trump sneaking up behind Hillary Clinton during a presidential debate. He did this decades before it was fashionable.

When he started working as a primatologist in the Dutch city of Arnhem in the 1970s, the accepted wisdom among animal behavior experts was that non-human apes were capable of only the simplest forms of learning, and not advanced emotions. Cognition, empathy and theory of mind were reserved for humans. But this did not match what De Waal saw day in and day out, as he looked out over the grassy island where the chimpanzees he studied lived in Burgers’ zoo.

He witnessed a lot of aggression, but the aggression was almost always followed by reconciliation. Almost always. In 1980, an alpha male named Luit was viciously attacked by two other males and later died. De Waal was deeply affected and realized that peacemaking for chimpanzees was not optional; it was a survival skill. Two years later he published Chimpanzee Politics, the first of his sixteen immensely popular books.

By then he had moved to the US to observe reconciliation at a monkey facility in Wisconsin. In 1991, he moved to Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and returned to studying his first love, chimpanzees. The books arrived steadily and they all displayed his signature style: intellectual provocation, deadpan humor, enchanting storytelling. “Almost everyone has a story about how they were inspired to study animals after reading one of Frans’s books,” says long-time primatologist Zanna Clay of the University of Durham.

In response to accusations that he anthropomorphized animals, he accused his critics of “anthropodeniality.” He decried the tendency to view violence and greed as primal needs that humans shared with their nonhuman cousins, while compassion and cooperation were uniquely human, the products of culture. No, said De Waal: good and bad are deep in all monkeys. Asked to summarize his career, he would say in later years that he had tried to raise the non-human apes a little higher, and bring the human apes down – to show that there was not such a great divide existed between us after all.

He didn’t invent the term “alpha male,” but he did a lot to popularize and nuance it. An alpha who is purely a bully will never last long, De Waal showed, because as soon as a serious rival emerges, the group will switch allegiances. The cunning leader builds alliances and knows when to fight and when to comfort. And while he gets many benefits, including privileged access to women, an alpha leads a stressful life.

When De Waal joined the field of primatology, the field of primatology consisted predominantly of men, but gradually women also came along, asking different questions – especially about female choice. De Waal welcomed their perspective and realized that it completed the picture. Although the alpha male dominates in chimpanzee communities, he often relies on the support of the alpha female. Mama, the doyenne of Burgers’ zoo, could anoint a male pretender with a kiss.

With the bonobo monkeys, De Waal encountered a different kind of society, one that was matriarchal and ruled by alpha females. But bonobos, though historically overlooked, had exactly the same relationship to humans as chimpanzees – as both differ from us by 1.5 percent of their genetic complement – ​​so their model was relevant too. The American and Japanese researchers who had studied them before him in Africa had described them as “very affectionate.” It took De Waal’s plain language to make it clear to the world that they had a lot of sex. It was their way of keeping the peace.

His research did not remain uncritical. In a 2003 experiment in which two capuchin monkeys were given rewards of different value for performing the same task (a small piece of cucumber or a more expensive grape), he and a colleague, Sarah Brosnan, claimed to have induced human-like sensation. of honesty. Other scientists failed to replicate the finding, but by then a video of a monkey hurling the cucumber back at the researcher had gone viral. It might have been a rare case where storytelling had an edge over science.

But essentially, De Waal was the one who exposed sloppy thinking, and he was drawn to others who did the same. When Clay took him to meet the more than 100-year-old British philosopher Mary Midgley, who had long opposed human exceptionalism, she says his admiration was palpable. His last book, Different (2022), offered a primatologist’s perspective on the relationship between gender and sex. He waded into the culture wars unperturbed.

De Waal was born in s’Hertogenbosch, Netherlands, one of six sons of a banker, Jo de Waal, and his wife Cis (née van Dongen), who ran the family home. With remarkable foreboding, his parents named Frans after the animal-loving St. Francis of Assisi, and he spent his childhood weekends in the polders, the low-lying areas reclaimed from the sea, where he tended a menagerie of mice, frogs and birds.

At school he took a lukewarm approach to biology, put off by the dissection lessons, until a meeting with Dutch ethologist and future Nobel laureate Niko Tinbergen revealed to him that you could build a career looking at living animals. De Waal studied zoology and ethology at the universities of Nijmegen, Groningen and Utrecht and obtained his PhD in Utrecht in 1977 under the mentorship of the respected primatologist Jan van Hooff. De Waal’s dissertation distilled his observations of the chimpanzee colony in Arnhem, where he stayed for six years. Apart from the interlude at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center, he spent the remainder of his career at Emory’s National Primate Research Center, traveling frequently to Africa and especially to the Democratic Republic of Congo to study chimpanzees and bonobos in the wild.

He wrote daily, while his wife Catherine acted as literary advisor and critic, and even after his retirement in 2019 his output was prodigious. In addition to hundreds of peer-reviewed articles, there were the books, which regularly made the bestseller lists and earned him a number of literary awards. The honor he was most proud of, however, was the Ig Nobel Prize – awarded for research that “makes people laugh and then think” – which he won in 2012 with a colleague, Jennifer Pokorny, for a paper showing that chimpanzees can recognize each other by their buttocks.

His excellent communication skills were always in demand, which meant he traveled extensively, but in 2023 a diagnosis of stomach cancer forced him to retire to the home he shared with Catherine in Stone Mountain, Georgia. He kept in touch with colleagues, responded to emails within minutes, and at the time of his death was working on a history of the study of animal behavior.

De Waal is survived by Catherine (née Marin), whom he married in 1980, and his brothers Ferd, Wim, Hans, Vincent and Steven.

• Frans (Franciscus Bernardus Maria) de Waal, primatologist, born October 29, 1948; died March 14, 2024

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