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Frans de Waal, who found the origins of morality in apes, dies at 75

Frans de Waal, who used his study of the inner lives of animals to make a powerful argument that apes think, feel, strategize, transmit culture, and act based on moral sentiments—and that humans are not as special as many of us want. think – died Thursday at his home in Stone Mountain, Georgia. He was 75 years old.

The cause was stomach cancer, said his wife, Catherine Marin.

A psychologist at Emory University in Atlanta and a researcher at the school’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Professor de Waal objected to the common usage of the word “instinct.” He saw the behavior of all sentient creatures, from crows to people, existing on the same broad continuum of evolutionary adaptation.

“There is no such thing as specifically human emotions,” he said in a 2019 New York Times article. guest essay. “Like organs, emotions have evolved over millions of years to perform essential functions.”

The ambition and clarity of his thinking, his storytelling skills, and his prolific output made him an exceptionally popular figure with a primatologist – or a serious scientist of any kind. Two of his books, “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Intelligent Animals Are?” (2016) and “Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves” (2019) were bestsellers. In the mid-1990s, while Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich placed Professor de Waal’s first book, “Chimpanzee Politics” (1982), on the House Republican freshman reading list .

The novelists Claire Messud And Sigrid Nunez both told the New York Times that they loved his writing. Actress Isabella Rossellini hosted a conversation with him in Brooklyn last year. Great philosophers like Christine Korsgaard and Peter Singer have written at length and considered answers to his ideas.

Professor de Waal’s influence was such that the Times attributed his work unleash “a torrent of discussions on animal sexuality” and contribute to popularize the term “alpha male”, although neither of these realizations has much to do with the core of his thinking.

His interest in what is shared between species, emotionally and morally, began in the mid-1970s, early in his career, when he watched a male chimpanzee confront another in a raucous tone, then calm down and hold out your hand, palm up. , in a peace offering, after which the monkeys kissed and nursed each other. After further research, he concluded that the episode showed a desire and ability to reconcile after fighting.

In the early 2000s, he discovered further striking evidence that animals other than humans have empathy and a sense of fair play, while working with psychologist Sarah Brosnan. The researchers designed an experiment in which two monkeys received a cucumbers to accomplish a task. Then one monkey was given a grape and the other a less tasty cucumber. The one who had obtained the cucumber began to refuse to cooperate, even going so far as to throw the vegetable to the researcher. Some animals that got the best part of the deal refused their grapes.

Many of Professor de Waal’s animal anecdotes were moving. He written about a bonobo named Kuni who once picked up an injured starling, climbed a tree, spread the bird’s wings and then released it, allowing it to fly. “She adapted her help to the specific situation of an animal totally different from herself,” writes Professor de Waal in his 2005 book, “Our Inner Monkey: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are.”

These kinds of episodes indicate that primates have cognitive abilities, Professor de Waal said. Other monkey behaviors – young females receiving maternal training, for example – indicated something even more impressive: the monkeys were capable of learning, remembering and passing on new skills from one generation to the next. ‘other, meaning that different communities had their own culture.

All of this language was unusual among scientists, and some objected to it. Donna Haraway, a specialist not in primates but in primatologists, argued that Professor de Waal tended to imagine a world in which “primates became model yuppies” – that he was, in other words, engaging in a kind of projection. A common argument against Professor de Waal’s work was that he anthropomorphized non-human animals.

Professor de Waal responded that the real problem was not anthropomorphism – apes and humans have many similarities warranting comparison, with similar brains and psychological makeups – but rather a human exceptionalism that rejected even the possibility of human behaviors in other animals, as well as in animals. like traits in humans. He called this trend “anthropodenian.”

For Professor de Waal, his critics missed some good news: morality turned out to be deeply rooted in our evolutionary past.

Franciscus Bernardus Maria de Waal was born on October 29, 1948 in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, a town in the southern Netherlands, and grew up in nearby Waalwijk. His father, Jo, was a banker and his mother, Cis (van Dongen) de Waal, ran the household and raised six sons.

Frans kept pet fish as a child, and during his college years he had a kitten named Plexie, with whom he said he had regular interspecies puppy dates.

At the age of 22, Frans attended the wedding of his brother Wim, who was a close friend of a young French girl he had met after being randomly assigned as pen pals at school. As soon as they met, Frans and the Frenchwoman, Mme Marin, fell in love instantly. A year later, they moved in together.

During his early university years, Frans studied macaques and specialized in monkeys. He began working as a chimpanzee researcher at Arnhem Zoo in the eastern Netherlands in 1975. He received his Ph.D. in biology from Utrecht University in 1977.

He and Ms. Marin married in 1980 to facilitate their move to the United States as a couple. The following year, Professor de Waal accepted a job at the Wisconsin Primate Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

He published 13 books, and when he died he was writing another, about how our thinking about animals has changed over time. John Glusman, vice president and editor-in-chief of WW Norton & Company, Professor de Waal’s publisher, said in an email that the company plans to publish it next year.

In addition to Ms. Marin, Professor de Waal is survived by his brothers Ferd, Wim, Hans, Vincent and Steven.

Professor de Waal’s sympathy for monkeys was not lost on the animals themselves.

At Arnhem Zoo, a female chimpanzee, Kuif, was unable to breastfeed sufficiently, leading to the death of each of her babies. Every time a person died, they would rock back and forth, cling, refuse to eat, and scream. Shortly after, another female chimpanzee, suffering from even more intractable health problems, gave birth at the zoo.

Professor de Waal had an idea. He started training Kuif to handle a bottle.

It was difficult to teach Kuif not to drink milk herself. When the baby chimpanzee, Roosje, was first placed on a bed of straw in her living space, Kuif looked away from her in an almost performative way.

Then Kuif approached the bars, where a guard and Waal’s teacher were watching her. She kissed them and looked up at them, as if asking for permission. The two humans waved their arms and said to pick up Roosje. She did – and became the most caring mother Professor de Waal could imagine.

“After this adoption, Kuif showered me with the greatest affection,” remembers Professor de Waal in his book “Mama’s Last Hug”. “She reacted to me like I was a long-lost family member, wanting to hold both of my hands and whimpering in despair if I tried to leave. No other monkey in the world has done this.

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