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Our Inner Ape

A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are

By Frans de Waal
24-minute read
Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are by Frans de Waal

Human beings are just as closely related to the gentle bonobos as they are to the aggressive chimpanzees. Frans de Waal compares the lifestyle of these two species of apes, in whose groups opposing characteristics such as sympathy and violence, fairness and greed, and dominance and community spirit clash with one another. Their sexual behavior tells us that we need to rethink the origins of our morality.

  • Anyone interested in behaviorism
  • Anyone interested in how morality is established
  • Anyone who wants to know who our ancestors were and what that means for us

 

Frans de Waal (b. 1948) is a Dutch zoologist and ethologist with a focus on chimpanzees and bonobos. He is the director of the Living Links Center, an institute dedicated to researching the evolution of apes and humans. Time magazine ranked de Waal as number 79 among the most influential people in the world. In 2012, he received the Ig Nobel Prize for a study that showed that chimpanzees could identify other chimpanzees based on photographs of their behinds.

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Our Inner Ape

A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are

By Frans de Waal
  • Read in 24 minutes
  • Contains 15 key ideas
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Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are by Frans de Waal
Synopsis

Human beings are just as closely related to the gentle bonobos as they are to the aggressive chimpanzees. Frans de Waal compares the lifestyle of these two species of apes, in whose groups opposing characteristics such as sympathy and violence, fairness and greed, and dominance and community spirit clash with one another. Their sexual behavior tells us that we need to rethink the origins of our morality.

Key idea 1 of 15

Recent research shows that morality is not a human invention – apes have morals too.

Charles Darwin rejected the church’s view that god created man and man’s morality. In his groundbreaking work from 1859, On the Origin of Species, Darwin argued that all species, including humans, were actually beings that had evolved over the course of millennia. During this process, genetic variations that contributed to the preservation of the species continued developing, while those that didn’t, disappeared.

In his 1963 work On Aggression, Konrad Lorenz went on to augment this thought by arguing that evolution’s purpose for the individual was not to preserve one’s own species but to pass on one’s own genes. It would thus be evolutionarily beneficial for individuals to dominate others – and even to hurt and kill the members of one’s own species – if this helped their genes.

In 1975, Richard Dawkins took this line of thought one step further with his idea of the “selfish gene.” According to Dawkin’s theory, it isn’t the individual that counts but the individual gene that wants to make sure to pass on copies of itself into the next generation. He called this gene “selfish” and argued that it only acts socially when it benefits individuals with the same genes, i.e., close relatives. According to him, humans use their intellect – their cerebral cortex, the thing that distinguishes them from other animals – to act morally and even to help people who aren’t directly related to them.

Since the early 1980s, an increasing number of researchers have published studies that contradict these theses. Among them is Frans de Waal, who examined the mechanisms of reconciliation among chimpanzees. Other researchers documented examples of selflessness, sportsmanship and even a sense of fairness in various animals’ behavior. And the work on bonobos, a chimpanzee species whose social life differs dramatically from that of their aggressive and violent cousins, brought about a huge change in our approach to primate research.

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