Frans de Waal (R.I.P.) and the Origins of War

Acclaimed Primatologist Frans de Waal (Author of ‘Chimpanzee Politics’) died on March 14, 2024 at the age of 75.

John Horgan at his own website: I interviewed de Waal in 2007 while researching my book The End of War. At the time, high-profile scientists were promoting the notion that humans are genetically predisposed to war. As evidence, they cited the violence of our closest genetic relatives, chimpanzees. In his influential 1996 book Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence, anthropologist Richard Wrangham declared: “Chimpanzee-like violence preceded and paved the way for human war, making modern humans the dazed survivors of a continuous, five-million-year habit of lethal aggression.” This hypothesis, which I call the deep-roots theory of war, was embraced by public intellectuals like Steven Pinker and Francis Fukuyama.

I discussed the deep-roots theory with de Waal on June 12, 2007, at the Yerkes Primate Research Center in Georgia, which houses chimpanzees and monkeys. De Waal was tall with sandy-colored hair. He still spoke with a faint Dutch accent, although he left his native Holland in the 1980s. We chatted in a watchtower overlooking a yard where three male chimps and a dozen females lolled, lazily nitpicking and sniffing each other.

Against this backdrop, de Waal heatedly rejected the widespread belief in “some sort of blind aggressive drive that makes us go to war.”

De Waal deplored the fact that this grim meme—promulgated a half century ago by the German biologist Konrad Lorenz and, before him, by Freud—was being touted once again by leading scientists.

The idea that primate violence stems from an “instinct” or “drive” reflects “an old way of thinking,” de Waal said, “that I don’t think fits the facts.” While not denying that chimpanzees can be violent—he has witnessed gruesome attacks himself—de Waal charged that anthropologist Richard Wrangham and others have promulgated a cartoonishly distorted picture of the species.

De Waal contended that chimpanzees fight not for its own sake, as some scientists proposed, but to achieve a goal: typically food, access to mates, or status. Chimpanzee aggression is especially contingent on the availability of food; the easiest way for researchers to provoke squabbles is to give one group of chimps in a compound more food than others.

Moreover, over decades of observing chimpanzees in the wild and captivity, de Waal had accumulated overwhelming evidence of chimpanzees’ generosity, empathy and peace-making. Chimps often hug and kiss each other and share food both to avoid fights and to make up after them. If one chimp has been injured, others will console it by licking its wounds.

Chimpanzees are capable of extraordinary altruism. They cannot swim, and hence they can easily panic and drown even in shallow water. Because chimps fear water, zoos often surround chimpanzee compounds with moats. Yet male and female chimpanzees have died after plunging into moats to rescue others who have fallen into the water. De Waal believed that humans share these innate traits with chimpanzees rather than an instinct for war.

More here.