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“Apes can control themselves for about 20 minutes”

“Apes can control themselves for about 20 minutes”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes

Frans de Waal, holder of the Eugène Dubois Chair, gives masterclass for students

Do chimpanzees have free will? What can we learn from apes? Last Tuesday, psychology students gathered for a masterclass by the world-renowned primatologist Frans de Waal. As it turns out, not everyone is a fan of De Waal – there are chimpanzees that throw rocks at him.

Tijl Horndt (19) and Anna van Oosterzee (21) are not particularly nervous, but yes, they are excited about meeting De Waal. In half an hour, to be precise. The two are part of a group of around twenty second-year honours students for whom the masterclass has been organised (by Carolien Martijn and former UM employee Wijnand Raaijmakers). On one condition: they were each required to review one of De Waal’s books of their own choosing. Last week, the students gathered to think of some intelligent and critical questions to ask.

“I read Chimpanzee Politics,” says Horndt, “and I want to ask him about the value of his conclusions, given that they’re all based on observations, and on animals in captivity.” Van Oosterzee read the latest release, The Bonobo and the Atheist. “He suggests in this book that chimpanzees have free will. I’d like to know more about that.”

Two o’clock. The masterclass, at the Scannexus building in Randwyck, is attended by some forty students, including several high school students from Meerssen. De Waal briefly introduces himself and his work, and focuses on his first book: Chimpanzee Politics. He was heavily criticized, he says, for applying a human practice such as politics to animals. “The thing is, it isn’t merely a human practice if you define it as the process by which it is determined who gets what, when and how. I work in a psychology faculty and I see that psychologists tend to neglect issues of power, hierarchy, submission, as though these are not important. Maybe because ideally we’re striving for an egalitarian society.”

A long silence follows. Who will ask the first question? Eventually Horndt gets the ball rolling with a question about the Arnhem zoo, where De Waal started studying chimpanzees. Another student brings up the issue of studying animals in captivity.

De Waal: “The captive females in particular behave differently. In the wild, they’re spread out in the forest searching for food. But in captivity they’re close to one another, they can see one another, they help one another out. That’s why they’re more powerful in captivity than in the wild. Males behave in a similar way.”

Then Van Oosterzee raises her hand. “In The Bonobo and the Atheist you mention that apes have free will. What are your thoughts about that?”

De Waal: “It’s funny what a big topic free will was a few years ago in the Netherlands. It’s a matter of definition. I don’t see it as the ability to make a free decision but to reflect on your goals and change them. You’re all familiar with the marshmallow experiment in which young children can choose between eating the marshmallow in front of them now, or postponing it to get two. You can see the children struggling with their desire, trying to control themselves by singing, sleeping, even licking the sweets. Apes can do that too, for twenty minutes. That’s what I mean by free will – although it’s a definition no philosopher would accept.”

Another question comes from the audience: do you feel that the chimps recognise you?

De Waal: “Yes, they do. Some recognise me even in a group of hundred people. I’m very close to a chimpanzee called Mama. But her daughter is very jealous. She throws rocks at me whenever I arrive. Once, I caught one out of the air.”

Next question: can apes teach one another things?

De Waal: “That’s a difficult topic. The answer is yes when it concerns functional teaching; an animal that shows her young how to eat, for example. And no, when it comes to active teaching, meaning that an animal understands that her offspring has a deficit of knowledge. Some evidence has been found for that in studies on killer whales. The mother takes her young to a deserted spot and encourages them to throw themselves onto the beach. Then their mother helps them to get back in the water. In this way the young are being prepared to catch sea lions later on. This kind of teaching is not seen in apes.”

As the end of the session approaches, a student asks: what can we learn from primates?

De Waal: “We are primate ourselves, so nearly everything is relevant. But most important is the insight that lofty concepts such as moral principles are not invented by humans. Moral behaviour arises not from a rational decision but is deeply grounded in emotions, as the research among apes shows.”

After fielding a few more questions on homosexuality, yawning out of empathy and the value of zoos, De Waal says if requested that he enjoys this type of gatherings and meeting students in general. “I don’t understand those professors who are proud of the fact that they don’t have to teach. In the US you don’t see that, except perhaps in the medical world. There it’s the most distinguished professors who do the best teaching. Even Einstein had to teach. I don’t get why teaching has so little status in the Netherlands. Also, it’s important to reach and to inspire those who are interested in going further in the area. Or vice versa, because it often happens that students ask questions I’ve never thought of. I don’t know if that happened today, but yes, it happens. Definitely.”

Eugène Dubois Chair

Frans de Waal (’s Hertogenbosch, 1948) is a Dutch primatologist and ethologist. He is the current holder of the annually rotating Eugène Dubois Chair, hosted by UM’s medicine and psychology faculties. This week he gave a series of lectures at UM as well as a masterclass for students.

De Waal started his career at the Arnhem zoo, where he studied the world largest captive colony of chimpanzees. This six-year project resulted in scientific papers and his first book, Chimpanzee Politics (1982). De Waal, who moved to the United States in 1981, gained renown for attributing human emotions and intentions to primates who in his view show empathic, cooperative, reconciliatory and fair behaviour. This led him to conclude that there are no sharp boundaries between apes and humans. His name is also associated with Bonobo, the ‘make-love-not-war primate’ that De Waal popularised. In his latest book, The Bonobo and the Atheist (2013), he discusses the extent to which God and religion are necessary for humans to exhibit moral behaviour. De Waal has been a professor at Emory University in Atlanta since 1991. Time Magazine listed him as one of the hundred most influential people in the world in 2007.

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