Our Inner Ape

Frans de Waal’s popular books The Ape and the Sushi Master, and Our Inner Ape are entertaining, informative and useful. De Waal is leading expert on the behavior of animals, mainly apes, and particularly chimpanzees and bonobos, as observed in colonies in the Arnhem and San Diego zoos, and in the wild.

In an interview published at the American Scientist, de Waal said: ” I thoroughly dislike authors with a condescending tone (“Let me explain this to you, dumb reader”), which seems the dominant British style, and much prefer writers who convey enthusiasm, puzzlement and hesitation about what things mean.” This explains his writing style. He takes a direct, common sense approach in his writing, with several anecdotes about his own life and work, which softens his confident presentation of his material.
Both books present ape behaviour and human behaviour on an evolutionary continuum. Apes and humans share common brain structures, common emotional sets, and common social structure. Unlike herbivores, apes and humans are not herd animals. But we are not particularly solitary either. We survive and thrive in small troops and tribes. The brain structures that enable social emotions were evolved over millenia of living as tribal creatures. Aggression and empathy are set of emotions and behaviours that are based on defending the tribe, asserting status in the tribe, and meeting needs for food, sex and companionship in a group.
The Ape and Sushi Master places more stress on showing that animals are closer to humans than our present intellectual biases admit. Our Inner Ape places more stress on showing that the basic explanation for human emotional needs is found in biology instead the various branches of clinical psychology or the humanistic social sciences. He is a primatologist, so he makes his points through stories of animal behaviour rather than neuroanatomy, but he seems to accept neuroanatomy as presented by writers like Stephen Pinker and Antonio Damasio.
The Ape and Sushi Master argues that animals – at least primates – have cultures in the sense of learning and transmitting life skills and information about resources and threats in their environment. In making this point, he discusses scientific method. He argues for the superiority of ethology, and behavioural ecology to comparative psychology and behaviourism. He argues that behaviourists, ostensibly avoiding anthropomorphism, ignore the evidence that animals, like humans, have social behaviour and learn from each other. In their narrow focus on learning in response to the environment, behavourists ignored how animals interact in real life.
The stories of animal behaviour are intended to demonstrate that many animals, particularly primates and especially apes have the qualities that humans used to think were distinctively human: intelligence, memory, communication, self-conciousness, empathy. He discusses how these qualities promote survival and how they emerged through Darwinian selection. Monkeys have different alarm cries for snakes and for other predators. The appropriate behaviour on hearing the alarm cry for a snake is to stand up and look for the snake. For a leopard, it would be to run up a tree into the high branches. Responding to the “snake” call by standing up makes that baby monkey a quick meal for a leopard. The process involves a multitude of biological features – the auditory and vocal system, the intelligence and emotions to recognize other members of the species and to learn how to imitate them and to learn react to the sounds they make. Monkeys don’t have a gene for an instinctive fear of snakes. Their genes dictate brain structure. The brains of infant monkeys are wired for social attachment to other monkeys, imitation, and fear. They learn to fear snakes by associating the alarm call for snake with the behaviour of other monkeys. They learn to fear snakes before they have ever seen one by learning, using genetically driven brain structures.
Chimpanzees use stone hammers to crack very hard ground nuts on stone anvils. Adolescents learn from adults and practice for years to get it right. Chimps seem to have learned this on their own, without imitating humans – although that would speak highly for their cognitive skills. Chimps, bonobos, baboons have politics. Social dominance among primates is not based on size, with a few exceptions like gorillas. Living in groups has its advantages in not being eaten by predators and in maintaining control of food supplies against competitors. Living in groups requires a certain set of emotions about the group. Some animals form attachments that become alliances, which allow them to dominate a group. Dominant animals breed, and evolution selects for social and political skill more than for cognitive and problem-solving skill.
He discusses some of the experiments in teaching chimps human language, which have illustrated the scope of cross species learning, as well as illustrating limitations. He includes an anecdote about the end of Wintrop Kellogg’s experiment at raising an infant chimp with his own infant son, The Ape and the Child. When Kellogg published the study, he discussed what the chimp was doing. De Waal says the experiment broke off when the human child began to pant-grunt and bare his teeth.
De Waal’s main research interests are dispute resolution and empathy. He sets himself apart from several popular writers including Ardrey who portray proto-humans and primitive humans as chimp-like aggressive master predators, emphasizing instead vulnerability and the role of empathy in allowing groups of vulnerable apes to protect themselves from predators and secure resources by cooperation.
While his emphasis on the intelligence and skills of animals appears to reinforce claims for animal rights, he makes so such claims himself. While his discussions of empathy and cooperation appear to support the old liberal claim that people are naturally good and should just trust each other, he really doesn’t go there. His exposition of females who like to think those social structures might be the real natural human “default” state before men began to dominate and repress females. He has no particular interest in those programs. Neither book goes out of its way to challenge those programs, but in Our Inner Ape he dismisses Margaret Mead’s romantic picture of hedonism in Samoa. he points out that bonobos, while more peaceful than humans and chimps, provide ample evidence of selfishness and jealousy in their daily behaviour. Bonobo sexuality is overrated. They do engage in casual sex, but what seems to happen more commonly is is that they get excited when they find food, engage in bisexual sex with everything in sight (bonobo intercourse lasts about 20 seconds) which diffuses tension, and then chow down without fighting over the food.
Is that a banana in your pocket or am I just happy to see you? Humans seem to prefer cocktails and small talk to a pre-dinner orgy.
Bonobos have sex in the open. Chimps are promiscuous too, but males try to monopolize mating opportunities – a pretty basic reproductive strategy in nature. Females are selective, also a basic reproductive strategy. Chimps often take their sex privately, where a jealous dominant male can’t interfere. Bonobos and chimps have an infant about every 5 and a half or 6 years. Humans have manage to be monogamous most of the time. The relationship is reinforced by attachment and jealousy. This strategy, combined with language, symbolic reasoning, and seems to be a reproductive and economic success.
He examines the evidence that human, chimp and bonobo females lack the emotional skill to reconcile after conflict. Males, across species fight and reconcile. Females avoid direct conflict, but don’t reconcile as well and hold grudges forever. Males engage in boisterous play. Females don’t like that stuff. Bonobo females will form alliances against a boisterous male. Chimp females help a weaker, older males maintain dominance in chimp troops. Male chimps are known to kill baby chimps when they take over a rival troop, but they seem to get used to their own offspring and protect the babies in their own troop. Females tend to form closer attachments to their own offspring and to other females than to males. Females need food to nourish themselves while nursing, and they need the support of a troop to protect and raise their young. Females bargain food for sex and closeness. Male chimps hunt monkeys in groups – which is the only way to catch and and kill fast and mobile prey. The one that actually catches the prey gets high fives and the first bite, but he better share fairly.
That kind of research doesn’t go over well with the crowd that thinks women are from Venus and Men are from Mars.