Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are

By DeClue, Gregory | Journal of Psychiatry & Law, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are


DeClue, Gregory, Journal of Psychiatry & Law


Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are, by Frans de Waal (New York, NY: Riverhead/Penguin, 2005), 274 pp., $24.95.

At the 2005 annual conference of the American Psychological Association, Frans de Waal received an award from the American Psychological Foundation and delivered a presentation on the subject matter of this book. The talk was intriguing, as is the book. De Waal is a keen observer and integrator. In reading the book we learn commonalities and differences among the apes, including orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos (the two species most genetically similar to humans), and humans.

De Waal draws heavily on naturalistic observations of apes (including humans) in the wild and in captivity. He tells us how various primates deal with power, sex, violence, kindness, and cooperation. Among the lessons is that apes are social creatures; it is necessary to understand the social context in order to understand our behavior. Apes regularly experience empathy and will spontaneously help not only their kin, but others, including other species.

Bonobos are as closely related to humans as chimpanzees. Popular conceptions of apes -and by extension, primitive aspects of humans -are largely drawn from chimpanzees. Bonobos have different behavioral and cultural patterns than chimpanzees. Bonobo groups are matrilineal, are led by an alpha female and a group of largely cooperative females, and typically resolve conflict via cooperation, often including sexual behavior to reduce tension and promote cooperation. Understanding of bonobo behavior and culture, as well as that of chimpanzees and other apes, helps to illuminate human behavior: "Being both more systematically brutal than chimps and more empathie than bonobos, we are by far the most bipolar ape. Our societies are never completely peaceful, never completely competitive, never ruled by sheer selfishness, and never perfectly moral" (p. 221).

Some aspects of human behavior that are often thought of as arising after language and being uniquely human are clearly present in other primates. An example is morality, which de Waal summarizes as the two H's, Helping and (not) Hurting. He describes how a group of chimpanzees responded after two adolescents made everyone late for dinner, and then integrates that with other ape behavior. "Having or not having [resources], appropriating, stealing, reciprocity, fairness: All have to do with the division of resources, a top concern of human morality" (p. 192). Morality is clearly present in nonhuman apes, and is therefore not dependent on language and cultural factors such as religion.

De Waal notes that, by the age of two, humans "distinguish between moral principles ('do not steal') and cultural norms ('no pajamas at school'). They realize that breaking some rules harms others, but breaking other rules just violates expectations" (p. 192). De Waal's broad perspective, drawn from observations across primate species and across cultures within a single primate species, provides a useful framework as we consider such behavior as authorities in the United States arresting a woman for breast feeding in a shopping mall, or Europeans' concern about a person's decision to keep a gun at his or her house.

Trying de Waal's perspective on, I now consider whether purported moral rules pass the test. Is this about the interconnected moral principles of do Help others and do not Hurt others, or is this merely about cultural expectations like no pajamas at school?

De Waal's observations and analysis lead to an understanding that "our noblest achievement-morality -has evolutionary ties to our basest behavior-warfare" (p. 212). "In the course of human evolution, out-group hostility enhanced in-group solidarity to the point that morality emerged" (p. 212).

De Waal considers and rejects the old Roman proverb "Homo homini lupus" (man is wolf to man). De Waal shows that the proverb misrepresents and insults wolves, humans, and other mammals: "One can't reap the benefits of group life without contributing to it. …

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