Skip to main content.
Frans De Waal

Extended Book Review

De Waal does a marvelous take on the visible elements, leaving the roots the business of the likes of Darwin and Dawkins. Ed Wilson does a somewhat parallel study of import as far as he goes. What De Waal adds, is concrete observations of how conflict resolution works in nature, while giving due the Selfish Gene of Dawkins. In the opinions of many, including us, the selfish gene not only gives rise to the selfish individuals, but to families and societies as well. In like manner, are not all behaviors genetic?

To help our thinking, we adopt the metaphor of a tall tree, where families make up the leaves, societies comprise the twigs, nations give form and substance to each branch, while the trunk consists of all the phyla within which primates give expression to the vertebrates while the roots collect and distribute the nutrients that give birth to, and sustain, us all. This view leads to intuitive pattern in nature. Studying the social side of nature is among the most difficult tasks confronting scientists. Common questions researchers ask themselves include: Are all the acting variables firmly under our control? Are we measuring them correctly? Is our sample truly representative? What is level of background noise? De Waal controlled for all these to the extent he could.

He, has no truck with hearsay. It is hard data he collects and interprets. Literally tens of thousands of observation hours contributed to his data base on primates--the taxonomic order comprised of monkeys, the great apes, and us. He expressed astonishment at what he found. And so did we, even though we were already prepared to think in general terms--that the emotional fabric of all primates is similar in kind, differing only in degree of expression of this or that trait.

De Waal also has no truck for the narrow view that looks only as behavior, not its origins. He demonstrates admirably and well how nature enables and nurture modifies the psychology of each species. This is what sets him apart from his peers. His all-inclusive view also constitutes what could be the final leg on the road to peace. By focusing on the mechanics of peace-making among primates , provides and additional set of tools by which humanity can move forward. Importantly, his findings fully account for our aggressive and hierarchical natures. His data base is heavily weighted toward captive animals. Where he has data on behavior in natural habitats, it agrees remarkably well with observations on captive populations. A huge advantage of studying captive groups is the ease with which it is possible to conduct controlled experiments over extended times on specific individuals or groups. Differences among primate behaviors become crystal clear.

A important advantage in De Waal's procedures is that his results can be replicated by others and falsified as the case may be. In this sense, his book encapsulates the best science available on the date of publication, 1989. His book, a classic in his time is now in its sixth printing.

A final advantage is the very speed by which new scientific information can be obtained on captive animals.

De Waal also has no truck with failing to look at the full spectrum of primate behavior. He is a pioneer in looking specifically for how conflict resolution varies among the various species, and how the various genetic traits interact to create individual and group personalities with quite different approaches toward peace making. In doing so, he finds quite high levels of social intelligence in both apes and monkeys, and in what ways humans differ most from other primates. He was appalled at how little humans know about their own conflict-resolution behaviors. This observation reflects badly on the disciplines of Psychology and Psychiatry, let alone the law enforcement and correctional policies. Captive animals have no privacy; he could see first-hand and record voluminous behavior on film and/or by note taking. In contrast, human couples typically settle grievances and make up privately. Humans might well exhibit a range, perhaps the full range, of peacemaking behaviors--if they had no privacy.

Following is a brief summary of two pertinent findings:

Species*Conscious of self? Reconciliation Modes
ChimpanzeeYES Grooming, Sexual
Rhesus MonkeyNO Grooming, Explicit Low;
Implicit High
Stump-Tailed Monkey NO Grooming, Extremely Sexual
BonoboYESGrooming, Highly Sexual
HumansYESImplicit, Explicit, Petting, Sexual
*Recognition of self in mirror.

De Waal's book rates five stars on both content and presentation. Anyone looking for how world peace can be achieved is well advised to read this book. Just be prepared for his tough conclusions. For example, some aggression may be necessary to make life interesting. Accepting one's place in a hierarchy may be equally necessary. And he rightfully observes that even wars, in the end, usually lead to coalescence of society--at least within the eventual national boundaries. Any careful read of history illustrates that very point. Ii is evident that humanity is still in an experimental stage of evolution.

As for this website, De Waal affirms the common heritage all primates share, and hence the evolutionary origins of our behavior patterns. Beyond that, and more importantly, he shows us first-hand that we have much to learn from our fellow primates: each has unique and sometimes novel means for conflict resolution.

A modification of grooming might include a back rub for example. For married couples, a return to the spot where it all began between the two, enabling a rekindling of earlier feelings and times might do wonders.


No comments yet

To be able to post comments, please register on the site.