Primatologist Frans de Waal discusses morality at convocation

Jamie Cartwright

Acclaimed primatologist and Charles Howard Candler Professor of Primate Behavior at Emory University Frans de Waal spoke to a well-attended convocation audience last Thursday about the relationship between human morality and behavior in social primates.

After being introduced by senior anthropology and psychology major Sam McGraw-Schuchman, de Waal presented various visual examples from his observations with primates, depicting how many other species besides humans perceive moral concepts like fairness, altruism, empathy and compassion. Through visual effects and elevated discussion, de Waal made an obvious impression, receiving a standing ovation at the end of his address.

The title of the talk, “Morality Before Religion: Empathy, Fairness and Prosocial Primates,” reflects the cross-disciplinary approach de Waal uses in his science of behavior. According to de Waal, many fields study behavior—psychology, anthropology, neuroscience, biology—but it is through the study of animals themselves that we learn about the true origins of human demeanor.

“We must not forget that we too are animals,” he said.

When sharing his experiences of chimpanzees’ capacity for reconciliation, de Waal reflected on how much the field of primate research has changed over his career. “Everything back then was about competition — competition between chimpanzees,” he said. But since the 1980s, de Waal has had an impact on the field of primate research, proving in multiple instances that primate species retain a capacity for cooperation, compassion and even altruism.

“While chimpanzees do compete, they are much more like political strategists than gang fighters,” de Waal explained. Chimpanzees, bonobos — a matriarchal species closely related to chimpanzees — and many monkeys have highly complex social structures that require an individual ape to navigate dynamic hierarchies. De Waal said that it is within these hierarchies that glimpses of our ancestral morality may be studied.

He shared one such glimpse with the audience. Explaining how capuchin monkeys understand fairness, he shared a film clip of two monkeys in adjacent cages receiving unequal rewards for similar tasks. Subsequent frustration ensued, demonstrating the presence of morality in monkeys.

De Waal claimed that there have been instances in which such monkeys or apes in similar experiments have refused a “sweeter” payment until their fellow monkey also receives equal pay. For researchers, this refusal to accept the treat is a sign that their cognitive understanding of what is fair extends far beyond the anger associated with discrimination.

De Waal explained that in recent years, his focus on behavior has turned away from just social primates to other highly intelligent animals. “Elephants may be the smartest animals we know of. We just don’t know it yet. They have no hands or thumbs, but they have an awareness of who they are,” de Waal commented. He explained that elephants have long been misunderstood because of their size, but his research in Thailand aims to explore their full intellectual capacity.

The plans to have de Waal speak at Lawrence were in place for nearly a year in preparation for the event. The evening prior to his address, Lawrence faculty hosted de Waal and his wife at a special dinner. Selected students were also given time with the scientist at a luncheon after the speech for students interested in primate behavior research. Thursday afternoon, de Waal held a question-and-answer session to receive feedback and clarify any queries about his full lecture.

Although de Waal is originally from the Netherlands where he studied at the University of Utrecht, he currently serves as the C. H. Candler Professor of Primate Behavior in the Psychology Department at Emory University and directs the Living Links program at Yerkes National Primate Research Center.

Through his work on morality, de Waal has gained a reputation as an effective speaker and presenter. He has been invited to give TEDx talks as well as public lectures across the United States.