Frans de Waal

Frans de Waal

Bio

Frans de Waal, Ph.D., is a biologist and ethologist, recognized worldwide for his work on the social intelligence of such primates as chimpanzees, bonobos, capuchins, and macaques. He is currently the C. H. Candler Professor in the Psychology Department of Emory University and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes Primate Center in Atlanta. De Waal is the author of five previous books, including The Ape and the Sushi Master and Peacemaking Among Primates, a winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Award.

Frans de Waal

Frans de Waal

Books

Q&A

World-renowned primatologist and award-winning author Frans de Waal shows us the parallels between ape and human culture with startling clarity in The Ape and the Sushi Master.

Controversially, de Waal challenges the validity of the nature vs. nurture debate, proclaiming that culture is firmly rooted in nature. Here, Frans gives a brief insight into why he wrote The Ape and the Sushi Master, plus you can explore related evolutionary reading and discover a few ape facts!

For the last 30 years I’ve been fascinated by people’s reaction to science and scientific ideas. In the 1970s I worked at the Arnhem Zoo in the Netherlands, and for years I addressed organized groups of zoo visitors – anyone from lawyers, housewives, and university students, to bird-watchers, psychotherapists, and police academies.

No scientist can hope for a better sounding board – especially those who want to communicate their ideas to lay people. The visitors would yawn at some of the hottest academic issues but react with recognition and fascination to basic chimpanzee psychology that I had begun to take for granted. I learned that the only way to tell my story was to bring the individual chimpanzees to life and pay attention to actual events rather than the abstractions that scientists are so fond of.

Writing popular science books is both a pleasure and an obligation. It is a pleasure, because one writes under fewer constraints than in scientific articles that leave no room for an anecdote here and a speculation there. Peer-reviewed journal articles aren’t always fun to produce. There is a need for popularization. This is where the obligation comes in: someone needs to explain to the larger audience what the field is all about. This may be hard for some disciplines, such as chemistry or mathematics, but if one works with monkeys and apes, as I do, it is a thankful, easy task. Like us, these animals live in soap operas of family affairs and power politics, so that all one needs to do is dig into their personal lives while attaching whatever scientific messages one wishes to discuss. People relate very easily to primate behavior and do so for the right reasons: the similarities with their own experiences are striking and fundamental.

And so, I began to lead a double life early on in my career. On the one hand, I am now a university professor and scientist who needs to write papers and obtain grants. At the same time, I am a popularizer who tries to see the bigger picture. Initially, I mainlytalked about my own work—such as in Chimpanzee Politics and Peacemaking Among Primates—but more and more my writings cover the work of others. My later books, such as Bonobo, Good Natured, and my most recent book, The Ape and the SushiMaster, are good examples: my own studies constitute only a fraction of what is going on in the field of primatology.

My mission in The Ape and the Sushi Master is to abolish the traditional Western dualisms between human and animal, body and mind, and especially culture and nature. I don’t know why I am so fundamentally opposed to these dualisms—many other scientistsfervently embrace them. It must have something to do with how close or distant one thinks one is to animals. At the very least—even if I won’t convince everyone—I hope to make my readers reflect on where these attitudes come from: how they are tied to human self-perception shaped by culture and religion.

And you thought humans had the last word on culture …

ART
Chimp art was so admired that even Picasso hung one in his collection

SOCIETY
The USA censored film footage of Bonobo ape society due to its sexually explicit nature

CUISINE
Koshima monkeys season their sweet potatoes in saltwater to taste

POLITICS
Rival factions within the chimp hierarchy stage coups d’etat

Penguin Hotline