What aspects of our human character do we inherit from our fellow primates? Until recently, the answer would have been ‘all the bad bits’. Footage of chimpanzees killing their own kind influenced the view in the popular imagination that ‘killer’ and ‘ape’ were virtual synonyms.
One of the leading scientists who has done much to change that view in recent years is the guest on this latest Podularity podcast, Frans de Waal. Frans is a Dutch-born primatologist, who has been based at Emory University in the US since 1981. His study of reconciliation behaviour in chimps has overturned many preconceptions about what constitutes their ‘nature’ and founded the field of animal conflict resolution research.
Frans also has a great interest in international politics, so it seemed natural to him to compare our human interactions with those of our chimpanzee cousins.
Of what prompted his latest book he writes:
within biology, the tone of the debate about human nature has changed drastically over the last few years, from the right of the strongest to the evolution of morality and commitment. This seems the right time, therefore, to present a more complete picture of human nature and human ancestry, one that tries to accommodate both the chimpanzee and the bonobo within us.
In doing so, the focus is on human behavior through the eyes of a primatologist. I have written both Chimpanzee Politics (on the Machiavellian tendencies of male chimpanzees) and Bonobo:The Forgotten Ape (on the Rousseauian tendencies of bonobos). By using the bonobo and chimp as provocative metaphors for ourselves and our evolutionary ancestry, we are able to see vivid mirror images of ourselves.
Though recorded in less than ideal conditions in a noisy London hotel, I hope you’ll enjoy listening to our conversation.