[monkeywire] Interview: The Two Apes within Us

Josh Greenman josh.greenman at gmail.com
Mon Aug 28 17:59:26 EDT 2006


SPIEGEL Interview: The Two Apes within Us

Hippy Sex Fiends and Brutal Machiavellians

So if humans evolved from apes, which ones are our closest relatives?
Dutch primate researcher Frans de Waal spoke with SPIEGEL about
bloodthirsty chimpanzees, sex-crazed bonobos, the origin of the family
and the nature of human beings.

SPIEGEL: Mr. de Waal, if you were a member of the group of chimpanzees
here beneath your observation tower, would you be the alpha male?

De Waal: (laughs) Absolutely not! My rank would be far lower. I'm not
even allowed to enter the enclosure. The chimpanzees could tear me
apart in no time. They're many times stronger than we are.

SPIEGEL: Let's assume you had the necessary strength.

De Waal: I would still run into all kinds of problems with the pecking
order. It's like working for a company, where there are intrigues and
where you have to do favors for friends and form networks. When it
comes to social interaction, the chimpanzees appear to be just as
intelligent as we are.

SPIEGEL: And who manages to fight his way to the top among the
chimpanzees? The cleverest one? The biggest one?

De Waal: Not necessarily. We have two leaders in our group here, for
example. One is a very relaxed, large male chimpanzee, which makes him
popular with the females. The other one is a little guy who is
extremely tenacious and uses dirty tricks when he fights, but he is
detested by the females.

SPIEGEL: How do the leaders show their subjects that they're in charge?

De Waal: By putting on a big show. There is a male chimpanzee in
Tanzania's Mahale Mountains who likes to make a huge to-do about
throwing boulders into a dry riverbed. Each time he does it a large
audience gathers and shows their deference. The chimpanzees bow and
chatter, both typical submissive behaviors.

SPIEGEL: So they're perfect subjects?

De Waal: Not at all! There's plenty of intrigue going on beneath the
surface. To help each other acquire power, chimpanzees form alliances
based on giving and taking. It's the same thing with people. For
example, unless US President George W. Bush doesn't give (British
Prime Minister) Tony Blair, his biggest supporter, something
significant soon, Blair will probably eventually withdraw his support
for Bush.

SPIEGEL: You mean that the power game Blair and Bush are playing is
essentially ape behavior?

De Waal: I'm convinced that that's the case. In people it starts
already in childhood. If you put a group of two-year-olds in a room
together, they quickly figure out who's the boss -- using fists, if

SPIEGEL: You claim in your book that a clear chain of command is
superior to democratic decision-making. But couldn't such
argumentation be used to justify a dictatorship?

De Waal: Hierarchies are unavoidable, but they're not the same as
despotism. It's interesting that those human endeavors that depend
most heavily on cooperation, armies or large companies, for example,
have the most strongly developed hierarchies.

SPIEGEL: But clear hierarchies alone apparently aren't enough.
Chimpanzees don't have armies, nor have they subjugated the world.

De Waal: No, armies are a purely human invention. Most soldiers who go
to war nowadays don't even do it because they're inherently
aggressive. Many American GIs in Iraq are poor kids who are only
waging war because a couple of guys in Washington decided to send them
to war. The guys in Washington, for their part, do it for territorial
reasons. That brings us back to the chimpanzees, which also exhibit
territorial behavior.

SPIEGEL: Primatologist Jane Goodall has said: "If chimpanzees had guns
and knives and knew what to do with them, they would use them the way
people do." Apes tear out their enemies' fingernails, crush their
testicles and rip out their windpipes.

De Waal: Oh yes, they can be very brutal. Wild groups of chimpanzees
attack their enemies like gangs. What they completely lack, precisely
because of their strong territorial behavior, is a friendly
relationship with their neighbors.

SPIEGEL: This, of course, is different in human beings. We trade with
our neighbors, travel through their territory and help each other when
disaster strikes.

De Waal: Exactly. And because of such traits, we cannot use the
chimpanzee alone to explain why we are the way we are. For example, we
can learn nothing from chimpanzees about our ability to make peace
with other groups or nations. For that it's worth taking a closer look
at the bonobo...

SPIEGEL: ...which is just as closely related to us as the chimpanzee.

De Waal: Yes. In fact, with its relatively small head and its
frequently upright way of walking, it even bears a closer resemblance
to us. Most importantly, however, the bonobos are remarkably peaceful
in their interactions with one another.

SPIEGEL: What makes them such pacifists?

De Waal: Wild bonobos live in a habitat that is more bountiful. Unlike
chimpanzees, they have more than enough to eat, so that female bonobos
can travel in groups. They form coalitions, help each other and defend
themselves to avoid being dominated by the males.

SPIEGEL: A matriarchy?

De Waal: Yes, but not one in which individual females are dominant.
Instead, the entire group is dominant, with the older female bonobos
generally in charge within that group.

SPIEGEL: Is it this female dominance that makes the bonobos so gentle by nature?

De Waal: Female bonobos at least appear to be good at keeping the
peace. After all, it isn't especially worthwhile to them to constantly
fight over their rank within the hierarchy, because rank has little
impact on reproductive success. Although high-ranking female bonobos
have better access to food for their young, this advantage is minimal
compared to the benefits high-ranking male chimpanzees enjoy. For
them, dominance translates directly into more offspring -- which
explains their frequently brutal competition.

SPIEGEL: Does this mean that armchair psychologists got it right after
all, that men are from Mars and women, the peacemakers, are from

De Waal: Wait a minute. I said that female bonobos keep the peace. The
males are better at making peace.

SPIEGEL: What do you mean?

De Waal: Females avoid conflict. They are afraid of violence. The
males, on the other hand, are less averse to strife. But once conflict
breaks out, the males are much better at reconciling. In a study done
in Finland, children who had quarreled were asked how much longer they
intended to be angry at one another. The boys proudly said: "Oh, at
least one or two days." The girls said...

SPIEGEL: Let's take a guess: "forever?"

De Waal: (laughs) Exactly.

SPIEGEL: And how do bonobo males fare in this peaceable,
female-dominated society?

De Waal: Not badly. They have far less stress, which allows them to
live longer -- and healthier -- lives than male chimpanzees.
Nevertheless, most men probably wouldn't want to live the lives of
bonobos. They're constantly clinging to their mothers' apron strings.
They lack the ability to make decisions about their own fates,
something that we and male chimpanzees practically consider our

SPIEGEL: Make love, not war. Bonobos are famous for their uninhibited
sex. How important is it for their social order?

De Waal: Very important. Bonobos have sex about seven times more
frequently than chimpanzees. But their encounters are also shorter,
lasting 14 seconds on average. For them, sex is like shaking hands,
and they do in all kinds of positions. These Kama Sutra primates
stimulate each other orally and with their hands, and they even have
sex hanging upside down. Most importantly, however, they engage in all
kinds of combinations, homosexual or heterosexual. They do avoid sex
between mothers and sons, however. Unlike chimpanzees, they also have
sex when bonobo females aren't even in heat. I would say that
three-quarters of their sexual activity isn't for reproductive

SPIEGEL: For what, then?

De Waal: For pleasure and relaxation. And for repairing damaged
relationships. When bonobos climb a fruit tree, the first thing that
happens is that the females have plenty of sex. Their so-called GG
rubbing, or rubbing their genitalia together, is the cement holding
together their social order. Finally, the males use sex to try to get
food from the females.

SPIEGEL: Why so much sex? How did this behavior develop?

De Waal: It prevents infanticide, or the killing of young animals by
the adult males, the leading cause of death in young primates. Because
bonobo males have sex with all bonobo females, they have no idea which
children could be theirs. We call this paternity concealment. Female
chimpanzees use a different strategy. They leave the group shortly
before giving birth and spend years avoiding the dangerous male

SPIEGEL: What role did infanticide play in human evolution?

De Waal: A very important one. In humans, the family prevents
infanticide. Next to language, the core family, consisting of a
mother, a father and children, is the greatest difference between us
and other primates.

SPIEGEL: How so?

De Waal: Humans became easy prey when they moved from the forest to
the savanna, which deprived them of the option of climbing trees to
flee predators. This shift made it necessary for the men to actively
protect the women and their babies. Only as a result of this
protection were women able to give birth in shorter intervals, perhaps
once every two or three years. This meant that they could produce
offspring about twice as frequently as apes. I would be willing to bet
that this rapid reproduction is one of the reasons why we dominate the
world today, and not the apes.

SPIEGEL: It was as easy as that?

De Waal: Of course not. The development of family entities has
another, more important consequence. It enables men to cooperate far
more effectively. Instead of constantly competing for the women with
other men, each man essentially has a partner assigned to him, one
with whom he can establish a family.

SPIEGEL: He forces her to stay at home, while he goes out into the
world with his buddies to build bridges and land on the moon?

De Waal: Something like that. But there is still one problem. In this
type of system, it becomes extremely important for a man that his wife
not have sex with anyone else, which would mean that he ends up having
to raise someone else's offspring. This is why men almost obsessively
control their women. Extreme examples are the chastity belts of the
Middle Ages or the burkas women wear in Islamic countries like

SPIEGEL: Family and language are traits that you recognize as being
unique to human beings. There is also another major difference: We
have religion and ethics. Apes can't compete in that respect, can

De Waal: I'll admit that. But I do believe that religion and ethics
are based on psychological building blocks that we share with related
species. We have added a system of social pressure, with which we
justify and emphasize rules. One of those rules is "Thou shalt not
kill." It may be expressed by religious leaders or philosophers, but
it merely signifies something that is deeply engrained in our

SPIEGEL: When the Pope appeals to us to love our brothers, is he
appealing to the apes in all of us?

De Waal: Essentially. I'm not saying that chimpanzees and bonobos are
moral beings.

SPIEGEL: They're unlikely to be familiar with the categorical imperative.

De Waal: But they are. They're very familiar with the motto "Do unto
others as you would have them do unto you." It's precisely the
principle of reciprocity that I see, in addition to empathy, as the
fundamental element in the psychology of all primates. We did an
experiment in which we gave chimpanzees watermelons and then
documented how they divided up the fruit among themselves. In the
hours leading up to the experiment, we recorded which animals groomed
which other animals' fur. The results were clear. The ape that divided
up the watermelon gave significantly more to those apes that had
groomed him earlier on.

SPIEGEL: You also mentioned empathy...

De Waal: Oh yes. For example, chimpanzees are quite good at comforting
one another. If a friend is suffering, they hug him and attend to him.
It's only our arrogance that makes us doubt that this is even
possible. When someone brutally kills someone else, we call him
"animalistic." But we consider ourselves "human" when we give to the

SPIEGEL: On the other hand, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes said: "Homo
homini lupus," or "man is a wolf to man."

De Waal: The evolutionary struggle for survival is really a
self-serving series of blows and stabs, and yet it can lead to
extremely social animals like dolphins, wolves or, for that matter,
primates. I call the notion that we are nothing but killer apes the
Beethoven fallacy. Beethoven was disorganized and messy, and yet his
music is the epitome of order.

SPIEGEL: Is it possible that even the dream of a selfless society is
the result of each individual's self-serving endeavors?

De Waal: No. Socialism cannot function, because its economic reward
structure is contrary to human nature. Despite massive indoctrination,
people are not willing to give up their own needs and those of their
immediate families for the general good. And for good reason.
Morality, after all, has nothing to do with selflessness. On the
contrary, self-interest is precisely the basis of the categorical

SPIEGEL: Wouldn't that mean that capitalism is the more suitable model
for human coexistence?

De Waal: A system based purely on competition also comes with
significant problems. You can see this here in the United States,
where there are too few constraints on market forces. It's a balancing
act. Competitiveness is just as much a part of our nature as empathy.
The ideal, in my view, is a democratic system with a social market
economy, because it takes both tendencies into account.

SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, democracies have been the exception in human history.

De Waal: I don't think that's true. Hunter-gatherer cultures, in which
we presumably lived throughout most of our history, are normally
organized in a rather egalitarian fashion.

SPIEGEL: But the age of such small groups ended long ago...

De Waal: ...and the world is becoming smaller. This is precisely our
greatest challenge. We, who think like animals living in small groups,
must structure a global world. We believe in universal human rights
and believe racism and war are wrong. On the other hand, it is our
nature to be cooperative and loving almost exclusively with the
members of the group to which we feel we belong.

SPIEGEL: In this respect, the violent chimpanzees aren't exactly a
good model. Would we, in our efforts to bring our ideals in line with
our nature, be better served to emulate the bonobos?

De Waal: Imagine if we didn't even know that chimpanzees existed. We
would be forced to conclude that our closest relative is a friendly,
sex-obsessed hippie, and we would probably come up with all kinds of
theories as to where our aggressiveness comes from. It looks as though
we have lots in common with both. On the one hand, we're good at
making peace and perhaps even more empathetic than bonobos. We
certainly have more sex than chimpanzees. On the other hand, we are
territorial, power-hungry and even more brutal than chimpanzees.

SPIEGEL: Is there anything that's exclusively human, or do you see
parallels to all our traits in the behavior of our furry cousins?

De Waal: People can fall in love, for example. And apes have no sense
of privacy, which is closely linked to the concept of the family.

SPIEGEL: And what about consciousness?

De Waal: Do we even know whether chimpanzees or bonobos have a
consciousness? Anyone who claims that we are the only primates with
this trait should first tell me how we can even recognize
consciousness from an external point of view. The only thing I'm sure
of is that we are by far the most contradictory of all primates. An
animal with this much internal conflict has never lived on this earth.
In this respect, we don't have just one ape within us, but at least
two. We have to live with this contradiction.

SPIEGEL: Mr. de Wall, thank you for this interview.

Interview was conducted by editors Philip Bethge and Rafaela von Bredow.

The Dutch zoologist Frans de Waal, 57, has been researching the
behavior of primates since the beginning of the 1970s. Dozens of
chimpanzees and bonobos in the Arnheim zoo in Holland and the San
Diego zoo know him almost as well as their own clan mates. De Waal now
leads the Living Links Center in the Yerkes National Primate Research
Center at Emory University in Atlanta. The Center has some 3,400
primates including around 100 chimps. He is the author of "Our Inner
Ape," published in 2005 and co- author of "Primates and Philosophers:
How Morality Evolved," which will appear in September.
De Waal: By putting on a big show. There is a male chimpanzee in
Tanzania's Mahale Mountains who likes to make a huge to-do about
throwing boulders into a dry riverbed. Each time he does it a large
audience gathers and shows their deference. The chimpanzees bow and
chatter, both typical submissive behaviors.

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