Frans de Waal on empathy
Interview by Johan Grimonprez

Johan Grimonprez: Your recent book The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society opens with a quote by James Madison, ‘What is government itself but the greatest of all reflection of human nature?’

Frans de Waal: People have ideologies about how society should be formed and they're almost always grounded in how they think human nature operates. Some of these assumptions are in my opinion wrong. Some might be right, some are partly right. For example, you can have a socialist system and say it's because humans are cooperative. That’s partly right, but we've also seen that that system didn't work so well, partly because the assumptions were probably wrong.

J.G.: One of your earlier books, Our Inner Ape, kicks off with exactly dead: “Million pages written over the centuries about human nature, none are as bleak as those of the last 3 decades, and none so wrong.”

F.dW.: Yes, in the last 3 decades of the previous millennium, we've had all these books starting with, let's say The Selfish Gene and related books, that have presented humans as entirely competitive and self interested. That literature came out of the animal literature. It's interesting how that fed into human thinking and came at the same time as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan who also said that greed was good for society. The view of human nature really affected the view of how society should be constructed.

That whole view was perpetuated until about the year 2000 when new data came from economists, anthropologists, primatologists, psychologists, who all started arguing that humans are actually more cooperative than previously presumed, instead of a highly selfish species. I would argue the same applies to a lot of animals, so that whole literature is now completely changing. J.G.: In Chimpanzee Politics, you describe the Machiavellian power struggles within ape chimp society, the world of Alfa males concocting coalitions, but early on you discovered also that the chimps consistently reconciled after fights. Conflict-resolution was considered heretical at the time, as the focus was on aggression. Nevertheless the research has led you to such topics as empathy and cooperation?

F.dW.: Empathy was a dirty word 25 years ago. I've met scientists who worked on empathy in children, who were the pioneers of this and they were not taken seriously. People would say, empathy, that’s more a topic for women's magazines or something. They would not take it seriously. Certainly the study of human empathy is now a very big field, not in the least in neuroscience.

J.G.: Jeremy Rifkin coins the term ‘homo empathicus’. He asks whether we can we extend empathy to include the whole human family and our biosphere as our common community. To him empathy is the invisible hand so that we can cohere in social units. Nations were fictions to empathize, but the predicament today is to connect our empathy to a biosphere we all share.

F.dW.: I don’t know how empathy operates at the national level, so to speak. That’s really not my field, but a general consensus is that empathy started with maternal care in the mammalian line, which required that females respond to the emotions of the offspring. When they're cold or when they're hungry, they need to react immediately otherwise they're going to lose their offspring, which explains why females are more empathic than males, because it's an old maternal characteristic even though males certainly have some of it. It also explains why we’re now finding empathy indications in all sorts of animals, not just in the higher primates and in humans but we find it in dogs, we find it in rodents. It's a completely mammalian characteristic.

J.G.: The empathy takes us back to the bonobos.

F.dW.: Bonobos are more sociable, they’re a more cohesive society, they are female dominated usually, or at least in the top. Males and females are sort of equal in bonobo society, whereas in chimpanzees its completely male dominated. The chimpanzee is highly territorial. That may be the big difference between the two: when chimpanzees enter the territory of the neighbors, they try to kill them to expand their territory. Whereas bonobos when they meet different groups they are a little bit hostile to each other and they yell at each other but very soon they have sex together and then they groom each other, then the kids play with each other. And in the end it looks rather more like a picnic than a war. The bonobo is a very interesting species because it is exactly equally close to us as the chimp. So, all those people who have used the chimp as model because they like this idea that humans are aggressive by nature, they’re ignoring the bonobo which is exactly equally relevant as the chimpanzee.

J.G.: You mentioned in your last book that the bonobo is remarkably absent in The Planet of the Apes.

F.dW.: The Planet of the Apes has very aggressive apes and also very aggressive humans in it. At the end of the movie you think, well its very logical that we’re aggressive because that’s how our whole lineage is. But the bonobo is nothing like it, and which tells us we have a relative equally close as chimps who don’t do any of this warfare stuff. And so there is a school of thought that likes to exclude the bonobo. The bonobo also came very late in the game so we have all these theories about human aggressiveness, we have these theories about chimpanzee aggressiveness and they came together very nicely and people had some sort of cohesive picture of what humans are: humans are warriors and that’s how we conquered the world. Now we know for example that we have a lot of Neanderthal DNA in us, meaning we didn’t necessarily kill off the Neanderthal we probably bred with them and bred them out of extinction, which is a very different idea than killing them. So there’s a whole new line of thought now coming up that says: humans are maybe warriors since the agricultural revolution. It’s maybe a recent thing that came up in our culture and there’s no indication really that it goes back all the way to the chimpanzee ancestor, we don’t have evidence for that.

J.G.: Winston Churchill claims: “The story of the human race is war. Except for brief and precarious interludes, there has never been peace in the world; and before history began murderous strife was universal and unending.” Nine days after Obama decided to send 30.000 more troops to Afghanistan, during his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Price, he declared: “War in one form or another, appeared with the first man.” It implies that war is inherently part of human nature and that it has always been with us and that is written into our DNA.

F.dW.: The first man? when was the first man? In biology we don't even know when the first man happened. There are new findings about the Ardipithecus, who is a human ancestor from before the Australopithecus, so from 4.4 million years ago. The Ardipithecus looks exactly like a bonobo in terms of its body proportions, and they speculate that the Ardipithecus was a peaceful character because of its small canine teeth. So, the last human ancestor that we share with the apes, may have been bonobo-like and if that's the case then certainly our warrior tendencies are a recent phenomenon. There was always probably some limited level of warfare going on in our lineage but the whole idea that we got to where we are by killing off everybody around us, I think that's a silly idea, I don't think that fits the evidence at all.

J.G.: At one point you say that we actually should draw the line between aggression and warfare because warfare is organized aggression as part of a hierarchical social structure.

F.dW.: It's a bunch of old guys in the capital who decide to go to war and it's the young guys who are not particularly eager, so they don’t fly to Iraq or Afghanistan or whatever place it is, in an aggressive mood. They go there sort of reluctantly because they are ordered or paid to. J.G.: Howard Zinn says that the fact that war belongs to the past, doesn't mean it has to be part of our future. What if war is not innate, but it's rather a cultural contagion. Just as with slavery or rape, because it exists that does not mean we cannot abolish it or put it into legal boundaries? Not that aggression would be abolished or violence in society would be abolished, but that war as an institution could have legal boundaries.

F.dW.: I like to distinguish small-scale warfare from modern warfare, which is a cultural construct really. Let's say I live in this part of the world and my neighbors have stolen some cows from me and I go to war against them. I think that's very different, that's not an operation like modern warfare, that's between people who know each other and have to kill each other from short distances. I think that small-scale warfare is probably more similar to what you see in chimpanzees, for example where one group enters the territory of another group. My guess is that kind of behavior has been with humans for a long time but we don’t' have evidence that it was always with us. Though with modern warfare, yes I completely agree, modern warfare as we have it today, industrialized warfare is a cultural invention.

J.G.: In his book On Killing Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman confirms a “powerful, innate human resistance toward killing one’s own species.“ Most men lack a killer instinct. To actually kill someone is of course quite different from watching a movie about it, and the data tell something few would have expected: majority of soldiers, although well armed, never kill. The record of the US military shows that men seek to avoid killing enemies and are traumatized when they do.

F.dW.: I'm not an expert on post-traumatic stress disorder but the fact that it is so hard to get people to kill each other as Grossman has documented and that half of them comes back with trauma when they have seen killing or been killing, indicates to me that killing other people is not something that we like to do. It's something that upsets us deeply, which is contradictory to the idea that humans are natural killers. Because if we were natural killers, we would be very happy to do it, it would've been bred into us to take a sort of joy in it and I don't think that's what's happening. Actually PTSD is a very old phenomenon. The Greeks already wrote about it, which indicates there's some sort of revulsion that probably has to do with empathy.

J.G.: The Milgram experiment shows that docility overwrites our propensity for empathy. Stanley Milgram calls our deference to authority totally flawed. Nevertheless during the real Milgram experiment, subjects were feigning punishment by adminstering milder shocks. And you describe an experiment with Rhesus monkeys who refused to have their fellow monkeys being shocked at the cost of loosing their food or even starving themselves.

F.dW.: It was done in Chicago in the 1950s where they had one monkey who could pull a lever and could get food for itself, so of course the monkey started doing just that. But then they would hook up that lever to shock the monkey next doors, and each time it pulls the lever it shocks the hell out of the monkey sitting next to it. And that caused an inhibition. Some of the monkeys wouldn't eat for five days, which is quite a long period, just because they didn't want to shock their neighbor. It indicates an empathy reaction, so strong that it overrode their hunger.

J.G.: Of course we've been drilled as humans by the media machine to actually believe this myth of the killer ape. Space Odyssey starts with how weapons were actually the evolutionary drive.

F.dW.: The killer ape myth started with Conrad Lawrence and Robert Ardrey. It has been very popular not just with the media but with academia also. Many people have jumped on that and as a result they have been sort of pursuing this line of thought that we have always killed each other and that human progress is actually linked to killing other people. It's so flimsy the evidence that we have from before 10,000 years ago. Apart from the chimpanzee, which does kill between communities, there is not such a huge amount of examples. Our next close relative, the bonobo, doesn't do any of it and so it's a sort of very shaky story, but people have very eagerly perpetuated that story without reflecting on the evidence.

J.G.: Herbert Spencer actually abused Darwin’s theory to apply to economics. He coined the term ‘survival of the fittest’ which became a way to justify economics and later on a template for Reagonomics.

F.dW.: Social Darwinism is really not the way Darwin saw it, but the way Herbert Spencer tried to say: look at nature, nature is cutthroat, it’s dog eat dog, the strong survive and that's what we need to mimic in human society. We're building a sort of natural order around struggle for survival and as a result we don't need to worry too much about the poor and the sick because you know, they are not very fit and so they, they shouldn't be surviving, we need to build a society where only the strong survive. That was the thinking, which has two problems. One is the assumption of how the natural world works, and the other the assumption that you need to mimic nature, that what you see in nature is what you need to imitate in society.

Nature has given many species cooperative tendencies to survive. It's not all dog eat dog because there's many animals who survive by living together and doing things together. The ants have their anthills where everyone works together. Primates have cooperative groups, wolves and killer whales are cooperative hunters. Cooperation is all over the animal kingdom. Nature doesn't operate at all like the assumption they have in social Darwinism and the absence of empathy with the sick and the poor that social Darwinism tries to foster, that we can ignore them, that's not really how a primate group would normally operate I think. The sick and the poor, they have a place in the primate society.

J.G.: Petr Kropotkin, in his 1902 book Mutual Aid, argued that the struggle for existence is not so much one of each against all, but of masses of organism against a hostile environment. Cooperation is common, such as when wild horses or musk oxen form a ring around their young to protect them against attacking wolves. In subzero cold, you either huddle together or die. Like Darwin he believed that cooperative groups of animals (or humans) would outperform less cooperative ones. In other words, the ability to function in a group and build a support network is a crucial survival skill. Kropotkin, who explored Siberia in the cold tundras, came to different conclusions than Darwin, who visited mostly tropical regions with abundant wildlife where population density and competition are most likely to develop. Whereas the cold Tundra with an unfriendly environment ushers towards cooperation. Both theories reflect the society that produced it. Darwin’s theory of the struggle for life mirrors free-market capitalism that arose at the same time.

F.dW.: Darwin had a big defender which was Thomas Henry Huxley, and Huxley was the one who promoted these ideas that in the animal world it's all combat and the strong win over the weak and so on. Kropotkin disagreed very strongly with Huxley, not with Darwin, he admired Darwin greatly, but he felt that Huxley was giving a much too narrow interpretation of survival of the fittest. After all, survival of the fittest may mean that I beat you, I defeat you but it can also mean that I have a better immune system or I may have better eyesight, or I may be better at finding food. Survival of the fittest doesn't mean that I necessarily need to conquer you, it means that I just do better than you. Kropotkin tried to explain that and he had worked with many animals in Siberia who huddle together in the middle of the winter so they survive actually by social tendencies that keep them warm or they defend each other against predators.

J.G.: You once coined the notion: ‘survival of the kindest’ because indeed survival of the fittest could also be the one who cooperates most, definitely with bonobos. F.dW.: I think all animals have both of these tendencies. Even in bonobos, which are considered so peaceful, even they can beat up on each other and sometimes females will chase males out. All animals have both sides; an aggressive, competitive side, but they need to get along at the same time. I've always been very interested in the dynamic between those two. For example, chimpanzees and bonobos and many other animals, they reconcile after fights. They have a fight, they may even make injuries on each other, which is rare but that may happen, and then afterwards they come together. For example bonobos have sex after fights, chimpanzees kiss and embrace each other after fights, many monkeys they groom each other afterwards. So they have ways of repairing the relationship.

J.G.: Sex would be part of the political arena?

F.dW.: Americans especially, since they're so puritanical about sex, have been saying bonobos are very ‘affectionate’. Well you know, if a male penetrates a female you can call it affectionate but for me it is sex. Though the sex is brief and it has a lot of social functions, so you sort of could call it a ‘genital handshake’ or something. It's like they're shaking hands but they're using sex to do that and it calms them down, it makes it possible for them to share food, to resolve conflicts. Bonding is very important for them, and so the sex serves many purposes. I would say 75% of the sex that's going on with the bonobo society has nothing to do with reproduction, because it's not in combinations that can reproduce: it's between females, it's between males, it's between adults and juveniles. So it has nothing to do with reproduction, it is like a social glue that holds their society together.

J.G.: Bonobos have been called the hippie chimp.

F.dW.: There is no evidence of bonobos having ever killed each other. That's a big difference for simians where we have quite a bit of that kind of evidence. So I would say that even though bonobos know aggression and they occasionally fight, their violence level is definitely lower than let's say the chimpanzee.

J.G.: Where would that come from, is it maybe because of the mothering that turned matri-central as in their territory more food is available. F.dW.: Yes, that's the thinking. Chimpanzees live in a forest that has fewer resources so they need to spread out in order to avoid competition. Whereas bonobos they can live in more cohesive societies where the females live together instead of separate from each other. This also gives the females more influence in this society because together they are stronger than alone. It's an ecological explanation of why they are the way they are.

J.G.: Different than the politics fictionalized within The Planet of the Apes? F.dW.: We have all these popularizations going back to King Kong. We like to project certain things on the apes. We project aggressiveness on an ape and then we say as a result we are aggressive. We project our thinking that ‘greed is good’ on nature, then we pull it back from nature and we say that's how society needs to be organized. So there's all this circularity going on in our thinking. Darwin was much more subtle in his thinking. He always emphasized that struggle for existence was not necessarily struggle in the literal sense of fighting with each other.

J.G.: Christopher Boehm’s research shows that the basic human tendency is social stratification. In many small-scale societies, actually egalitarian societies such as the Navajos, the Mbuti Pygmies, !Kung San, Inuit, etc people continuously employ ‘leveling mechanisms’ to keep alfa males from gaining control. The emphasis on equality and sharing is an actively maintained condition that recognizes the human desire to dominate. “Social hierarchies made a comeback with agricultural settlement and the accumulation of wealth. But the tendency to subvert these vertical arrangements never left us. We’re born revolutionaries,” you write in The Age of Empathy, “Robin Hood had it right.”

F.dW.: The interesting part of Christoph Boehm’s work, is that we used to think that if you saw an egalitarian human society that's the sort of ideal utopian-type life, these people have decided to be egalitarian. But what Chris Baumer and his work demonstrated is that it's actively maintained, humans have a very strong tendency to form hierarchies, there's a strong tendency for certain men to try to dominate everybody and to take the benefits from that. But in these small-scale societies humans go against it. Let's say you want to be the boss and you're going to be playing big and beating up on others and then we're going to gossip about you and joke about you and ridicule you and at some point we may even drive you out and get rid of you because we don't want a man like that in our community. Baum explained that humans have hierarchical tendencies but they also have the tendency to go against it and to try to level things off. Actually our democratic system is based on that kind of thinking. Of course it's a much bigger system than the small-scale society but in our large societies which are democratic, we basically say well you can be our alpha male, you can be the top male, but you have to behave and if you don't do what you promised us to do, we're going to kick you out. That's what democracy is, it's really a hierarchical system temporarily controlled.

J.G.: You also talk about the fact that strength is weakness. You visited the Pentagon, right? I liked that story where what you predicted came true because of the shape of coalitions.

F.dW.: What happened is sort of interesting. We were invited to a Pentagon meeting right after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Pentagon asked a group of academics, including me, a primatologist: ‘what would happen in the world if there's only one superpower left?’ Fortunately there was also a political scientist who had the same reaction: if you're the most powerful player then almost automatically you get a coalition against you, because there's always this balancing mechanism in society. This happens in chimpanzee groups, this happens in human societies, this happens internationally. The political scientist who supported my view was one who knew international politics. If you are a very powerful player, I will automatically line up with a bunch of others who are less powerful to sort of counterbalance you. The Pentagon didn't want to hear any of this, but it’s exactly what happened later on. When the Iraq War came along, the Russians, the Chinese, the French and the Germans ganged up against the plans of the U.S., actually the oddest coalition you could have imagined.

J.G.: Back to chimp politics.

F.dW.: It was like a balancing of a power deal. I think the Iraq War was one of the stupidest things that the U.S. has ever done and they should've listened to these people but they didn't want to listen at the time.

J.G.: Reconciliation is something totally different than war. Very often peace is defined as the absence of war but peace has its own values. The peace-process is something on itself.

F.dW.: In primates there is certainly within the groups, between the groups is a bit more problematic, but within the groups there's quite a bit of peacemaking going on. If two chimpanzees have a fight and then ten minutes later they come together, they kiss and embrace each other. Bonobos would have sex together. Other primates hold hands or they groom each other. So they have all sorts of processes to repair the relationship and I think keeping good relationships is an active process. So yes, that's in answer to your question, it's not the absence of aggression necessarily which is part of it but it's also actively maintaining a good relationship when tensions arise. Let's say two females are sitting together and their kids are getting in a big fight, which creates tensions between the two females because each one of them has a tendency to defend their own kid so potentially you can get in a fight between the two mothers. So the females, they will maybe find a solution. They will activate a third female who maybe interferes or they will interfere themselves and try to stay out of trouble. So there's all this active manipulation going on with grooming and touching to prevent a conflict from escalating. Keeping peace is an active process.

J.G.: If we are Homo Ludens, that is the playful ape, then is the Orwellian ‘peace is war’ rhetoric really a prerequisite for society? Is an outside threat necessary for a community to come about? Peace and community has maybe something of a value on itself that does not necessarily need to be defined against the backdrop of a threat. In other words: is the main reason for peacemaking not peace per se, but shared purpose.

F.dW.: In primate groups, including human groups, there's always the potential for tensions. So you always have to be careful, if you take a little bit more food out of the pile then there's less food for me, and that is potentially a problem. We can do experiments on how sensitive primates are to equity and they reject inequity. So you can do experiments where one of them gets a better situation than the other and they actually reject that kind of situation. Primates are very sensitive to anything that may disturb the peace and try to repair that before it happens. If you approach a group of chimpanzees with food, which they really like, the first thing is that they embrace and kiss each other. We call it the celebration. They run to each other, they are very loud, they are very excited, they kiss and embrace each other. We think all that physical contact that they have serves to overcome the tensions of the food that is going to be introduced so that they can share the food. Usually there's more sharing than fighting over the food and we think that's because they have calmed themselves down with all this physical contact. If you do the same thing with bonobos, you get a lot of sex among them, an orgy, which also probably serves to calm down the tensions over the food and then when you introduce the food they share it. And so the primates are very active in keeping good relationships.

J.G.: One other experiment you introduced was the popcorn machine?

F.dW.: It’s a nice little experiment on the value of relationships. The thinking in the whole field of conflict was that the more valuable a relationship is, the more reasons you have to maintain the peace. The European Community is basically based on that principle because Europe was formed with the idea that if you foster economic ties between Germany and France, you get a more peaceful Europe because they're going to be dependent on each other. In the experiment with the monkeys they put two monkeys in an area where they could only feed if they came together to a feeder. If they came alone they would get nothing, they had to come together. In the control group you had two monkeys who could feed any way they wanted, they were completely independent. Then they would introduce a conflict between these monkeys and see how long it would take them to reconcile after the fight. The ones who had learned to cooperate and to feed together, they were very eager to reconcile and the ones who were in the control group who were independent from each other, they were not so eager to reconcile. So they found that reconciliation in monkeys is dictated basically by how much they need each other.

J.G.: You concluded that humans are actually bipolar apes, that we’re actually a bit of bonobo and a bit of chimpanzee.

F.dW.: I think that humans are very interesting species because when we are good, we are better than any animal that I know in terms of our altruism and our tendency to help. When there's a tsunami for example you see help pouring in from all over the world. But when humans are bad we create genocides unheard of amongst other primates. When we are horrible, we are absolutely horrible. Humans have this sort of bipolar tendencies where we can either be extremely good or we can be extremely bad, and of course some academics emphasize one or the other. I found it actually very interesting to look at the tension between those two tendencies and how do we maintain societies of such a complexity while balancing both at the same time.

J.G.: We're living oxymorons?

F.dW.: We are very contradictory.