Rethinking Primate Aggression

Researcher Frans de Waal shows that apes (and humans) get along better than we thought

Having logged thousands of hours observing chimpanzees and other apes, Frans de Waal (left, at his Atlanta field station) argues that primates, including humans and bonobos, are more cooperative and less ruthless than once thought. Enrico Ferorelli

One afternoon in the 1970s, a soft-spoken young biologist observed a defining moment at a Dutch zoo: two male chimpanzees fought fiercely, only to retreat and then embrace each other peaceably. Instead of consigning the emotional impact of that embrace to oblivion as many contemporary scientists would have done, Frans de Waal described it with a then-radical word: "reconciliation."

Thus began de Waal's quiet revolution in how we discuss animal behavior, particularly the often aggressive encounters of primates. Writer Richard Conniff visited de Waal at his laboratory at EmoryUniversity and talked with him about the enormous influence that his studies have wielded. Admirers have ranged from Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson to Newt Gingrich who, as Speaker of the House, placed one of de Waal's books on a list of recommended reading for incoming Republicans.

The reason for all that attention is clear. Having logged thousands of hours watching primates from chimpanzees to macaques, de Waal has come to believe that far from being natural-born "killer apes," as they had often been described, chimps and other primates are far more attuned to peacemaking. "Chimpanzees have something like ‘community concern,'" he says. "They live in a group and they have to get along, and their life is going to be better if their community is better." In the end, de Waal believes, the evolution of humans and other primates may point more toward such altruism and cooperation than a ruthless survival of the fittest.

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