Frans de Waal

Dutch primatologist and ethologist (1948–2024)

Frans B.M. de Waal PhD (29 October 194814 March 2024) was a Dutch psychologist, primatologist and ethologist.

I've argued that many of what philosophers call moral sentiments can be seen in other species. In chimpanzees and other animals, you see examples of sympathy, empathy, reciprocity, a willingness to follow social rules.


Many animals survive not by eliminating each other or by keeping everything for themselves, but by cooperating and sharing.
  • In 1879, American economist Francis Walker tried to explain why members of his profession were in such "bad odor amongst real people". He blamed it on their inability to understand why human behavior fails to comply with economic theory. We do not always act the way economists think we should, mainly because we're both less selfish and less rational than economists think we are. Economists are being indoctrinated into a cardboard version of human nature, which they hold true to such a degree that their own behavior has begun to resemble it. Psychological tests have shown that economics majors are more egoistic than the average college student. Exposure in class after class to the capitalist self-interest model apparently kills off whatever prosocial tendencies these students have to begin with. They give up trusting others, and conversely others give up trusting them. Hence the bad odor.
    • "Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are" (2005), p. 243
  • Don’t believe anyone who says that since nature is based on a struggle for life, we need to live like this as well. Many animals survive not by eliminating each other or by keeping everything for themselves, but by cooperating and sharing. This applies most definitely to pack hunters, such as wolves or killer whales, but also our closest relatives, the primates. In a study in Taï National Park, in Ivory Coast, chimpanzees took care of group mates wounded by leopards, licking their blood, carefully removing dirt, and waving away flies that came near the wounds. They protected injured companions, and slowed down during travel in order to accommodate them. All of this makes perfect sense given that chimpanzees live in groups for a reason, the same way wolves and humans are group animals for a reason. If man is wolf to man, he is so in every sense, not just the negative one. We would not be where we are today had our ancestors been socially aloof. What we need is a complete overhaul of assumptions about human nature. Too many economists and politicians model human society on the perpetual struggle they believe exists in nature, but which is a mere projection. Like magicians, they first throw their ideological prejudices into the hat of nature, then pull them out by their very ears to show how much nature agrees with them. It’s a trick for which we have fallen for too long. Obviously, competition is part of the picture, but humans can’t live by competition alone.
    • The Age of Empathy (2009), p. 6

The Bonobo in All of Us (2007)

I think if we study the primates, we notice that a lot of these things that we value in ourselves, such as human morality, have a connection with primate behavior.
Quotes from a NOVA interview, "The Bonobo in All of Us" PBS (1 January 2007)
  • I first saw them in 1978. At the time, I knew a lot about chimps, because I had been studying them. I saw the bonobos at a zoo in Holland, and I thought immediately, they're totally different. The sense you get looking them in the eyes is that they're more sensitive, more sensual, not necessarily more intelligent, but there's a high emotional awareness, so to speak, of each other and also of people who look at them.
    • On his first encounter with bonobos
  • At the time, I was interested in reconciliation after fights, and I wanted to know how bonobos did it compared to chimpanzees. Very soon I discovered that they were much more sexual in everything they did, and that interested me — not so much for the sex part, even though that became a very hot topic, the peacemaking-through-sex thing — but much more how they have such a peaceful society, because they are much less violent than chimpanzees.
  • If you look at human society, it is very easy, of course, to compare our warfare and territoriality with the chimpanzee. But that's only one side of what we do. We also trade, we intermarry, we allow each other to travel through our territory. There's an enormous amount of cooperation. Indeed, among hunter-gatherers, peace is common 90 percent of the time, and war takes place only a small part of the time. Chimps cannot tell us anything about peaceful relations, because chimps have only different degrees of hostility between communities. Whereas bonobos do tell us something; they tell us about the possibility of having peaceful relationships.
  • It is true that the chimpanzee is dominance-oriented, violent, territorial. But it's also cooperative in many ways, and so that side is sometimes forgotten. The bonobo is sensual, sensitive, sexual, a peacemaker, but also can have a nasty side, and that's sometimes forgotten. So both species are sort of the ends of the spectrum, and we fall somewhere in between. Clearly, we have both of these sides in us, and that's why I sometimes call us "the bipolar apes."
  • I would say there are people in this world who like hierarchies, they like to keep people in their place, they like law enforcement, and they probably have a lot in common, let's say, with the chimpanzee. And then you have other people in this world who root for the underdog, they give to the poor, they feel the need to be good, and they maybe have more of this kinder bonobo side to them. Our societies are constructed around the interface between those two, so we need both actually.
  • Imagine that we didn't know the chimpanzee, that all we knew were those bonobos who have sex all the time and are peaceful and female-dominated and that people would say that this is our only close relative. I think we would have totally different theories about ourselves and our background. But, of course, it didn't happen that way.
  • I think if we study the primates, we notice that a lot of these things that we value in ourselves, such as human morality, have a connection with primate behavior. This completely changes the perspective, if you start thinking that actually we tap into our biological resources to become moral beings. That gives a completely different view of ourselves than this nasty selfish-gene type view that has been promoted for the last 25 years.

Quotes about Frans de Waal

  • I think we can defend the view that there are two different sorts of moral gap, an ‘affection gap’ and a ‘performance gap’. The affection gap is that non-human animals do not have what Duns Scotus calls ‘the affection for justice’, which is a pull towards what is good in itself, regardless of any relation to us. The performance gap is that we do not find in ourselves the innate capacity to live consistently by the affection for justice by merely human devices. ... De Waal says that the doctrine of original sin has been refuted and that we are not sinfully self-centered but ‘we are driven to empathize with others in an automated, often unconditional fashion. We genuinely care about others, wanting to see them happy and healthy regardless of what immediate good this may do for us.’ However, he agrees that we do not find in non-human animals morality itself, though we do find kin selection, so-called ‘reciprocal altruism’, and social control. This admits the affection gap. He also agrees that human beings, despite formal protestations to the contrary and despite our innate goodness, put self and its kin first, then the ingroup, and the idea of being moral towards individuals from other groups is very recent and very fragile. As far as I can see, this is the performance gap.
    • John E. Hare, “Evolutionary Theory and Theological Ethics,” Studies in Christian Ethics, vol. 25, no. 2 (2012), p. 251
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