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Talking Primates with Frans de Waal
August 30, 2005 9:44 AM   Subscribe

Talking Primates with Frans de Waal: Frans de Waal is a primatologist who's challenged male supremacy in evolution, the belief that monkeys don't perceive images as we do, and the idea that they don't possess emotions ascribed to humans. His new book, Our Inner Ape, posits that the human duality of good and evil is in fact something we've inherited directly from primates.
posted by veronica sawyer (28 comments total)

 
I don't know why people have such an issue with animals feeling emotions. I've seen far too much evidence of happiness, sadness and fear in animals, both in real life and in documentaries.

True that I don't know what goes on in their minds, but I don't know what goes on in other people's minds either.
posted by Kickstart70 at 10:07 AM on August 30, 2005


Over the last few decades, biologists have popularized the image of humans as driven by "selfish genes," doing only what is good for themselves. This message fit the Reagan-Thatcher Zeitgeist of greed as the foundation of the free-market system.

I stopped reading after that.
posted by three blind mice at 10:26 AM on August 30, 2005


If animals have feelings, then wouldn't we have to take those feelings into consideration? Then PETA wouldn't seem so crazy when they picket restaurants that serve veal and talk about "chicken concentration camps" and so forth. At the very least, one would have to consider the morality of eating meat and conducting certain experiments on animals. And that can be hard to wrestle with.
posted by skoosh at 10:28 AM on August 30, 2005


[...]something we've inherited directly from primates.

Seing as we, Homo Sapiens, are classified as primates: How could we not inherit everything from or via primates?

If one regards emotions and intellect as something generated by living brains, then the question of animal emotions (or consciousness) becomes simple: They think and feel like we do to the extent that their brains are similar to ours.

Still, I don't think capability of emotion is the only criterion for wether it is moral to eat members of a given species - sometimes I wonder if it is not a thin veneer over the real motives.
posted by spazzm at 11:01 AM on August 30, 2005


Oy vey, spelling. It's 4 am and I need to get some sleep. Sorry.
posted by spazzm at 11:04 AM on August 30, 2005


Seing as we, Homo Sapiens, are classified as primates...

Oh, derr. That was a bad choice of words.
posted by veronica sawyer at 11:27 AM on August 30, 2005


The new twist of Our Inner Ape was to make primate behavior apply directly to human behavior.

Hardly a new concept, people have been seeing themselves in animals physically, emotionally, and behaviorally since forever, although he may be referring to his own writing?

I can't make out what the author is saying about Duality being inherited from apes, he considers the Right and Wrong concept to therefor be:
1 - correct
2 - incorrect
3 - meaningless
4 - none of the above, just functional for us primates
?
posted by scheptech at 11:33 AM on August 30, 2005


Emotions, schemotions.

Animals have a nervous system that registers pain, and I'm sure the average binobo monkey experiences a lot more pleasure than I do. Love? There's a couple of geese close to where I live. A few months ago they had four babies. I got a little to close to one of the goslings and one of the geese attacked me.
posted by disgruntled at 11:40 AM on August 30, 2005


Still, I don't think capability of emotion is the only criterion for wether it is moral to eat members of a given species...

It's not, but a lot of people are of the "It's okay to eat fish, cuz they don't have any feelings" school. Accepting that animals have emotions, and rejecting that ethical principle in order to avoid condemning meat-eating, brings up a whole lot of fun philosophical questions, like: is it morally okay for sentient aliens to eat you? Is it morally okay for a shark to eat you? A chimpanzee? Fun questions to tackle, but not everyone likes to be made to question the deep philosophical underpinnings of their world-view and moral code.
posted by skoosh at 11:44 AM on August 30, 2005


Still, I don't think capability of emotion is the only criterion for wether it is moral to eat members of a given species...

The only criterion is that they taste good. And I think I'll go cook that goose for supper.
posted by disgruntled at 11:50 AM on August 30, 2005


I don't think her research covers any pasta-based theories.
posted by solistrato at 11:51 AM on August 30, 2005


The only criterion is that they taste good.

Humans taste just like chicken. Mmm... humans.
posted by skoosh at 11:55 AM on August 30, 2005


I don't think fish have feelings. However, I will eat animals that probably do have feelings, because they are also tasty.

---

Aaaanyway. Attempting divine social norms, or come up with theories about how society should act based on genetics, or how other apes act is a total waste of time and energy. The fact that Bonobos act one way, and Chimps another is totally irrelevant to studying humans, other then people would rather live in a society modeled after a colony of bonobos then one modeled after Chimps.
posted by delmoi at 12:01 PM on August 30, 2005


I used to eat fish until I found out they have no feelings. That kinda took the fun out of it for me...
posted by InfidelZombie at 12:08 PM on August 30, 2005


Too bad some of those inherited traits didn't fall off the family tree:

'Drunk and Disorderly' Chimps Attacking Ugandan Children
Chimpanzees in western Uganda are increasingly raiding illegal brewing operations in forested river valleys and getting drunk on the country beer. Once intoxicated, they become hostile and attack and at times kill human children, parks officials say.
Our Closest Relatives
...the 45 members of one troop ate a ton of monkey meat per year. During one hunting binge, chimps killed 71 colobus monkeys in 68 days; one chimp alone killed 42 monkeys over five years. All told, chimps may kill and eat a third of the Gombe's colobus population each year.
Behavior and Socialization - Society, Good and Bad
...some chimps occasionally murder other chimps for no apparent survival-related reason. Premeditated, gangland-style attacks were directed by a large group of male chimps on a smaller group of males and females that had previously broken away from the larger group. Over the course of five years, each member of the splinter group was systematically and brutally beaten. All died.

posted by cenoxo at 12:14 PM on August 30, 2005


Feelings, shmeelings. Aren't plants sensitive in some ways? What's left? Rocks?

Personally, I draw the line at eating something that used to be able to read. People for the Eating of Tasty Illiterates!
posted by Sparx at 2:15 PM on August 30, 2005


brings up a whole lot of fun philosophical questions, like: is it morally okay for sentient aliens to eat you? Is it morally okay for a shark to eat you? A chimpanzee? Fun questions to tackle, but not everyone likes to be made to question the deep philosophical underpinnings of their world-view and moral code.

Dumb argument. There is not cross-species morality. Is it moral for Tigers to eat Turtles? IOW: Is it ok for aliens to eat me? It's not ok with me but I'm sure it's just fine with them.

And what IF carrots feel pain or fear? I mean we don't absolutely know 100% do we?

And what if I can devise a technology that absolutely eliminates all fear and pain - or any negative emotion - from any animal I need to slaughter. In fact this device makes it sublime for me to eat them. Is it "OK" to eat anything - even people - then?

See vegan animal-rights extremist types want to play with the definition of "Sentient" and "Animal" when it suits them:
"Man is an animal."
"So. Ok. Animals eat eachother"
"Er. No. He's not he is higher order".
"So. He IS superior?"
"Er. No he is an animal, but a moral animal..."

Eventually it comes down to this: We don't like to see things suffer. That is a good thing. Needless suffering is bad. But like all animals humans also need to eat. And it is as wrong tell people what they can eat (as long as processing what you eat doesn't do physical harm involuntarily to other humans) as it is to torture animals as a process for making them food.

But making animals into food is simply not wrong for our species.
posted by tkchrist at 2:28 PM on August 30, 2005


tkchrist, the argument you make is not as contradicting as you make it sound. It is simply that animals (non-human) can not choose what they eat, therefore it is okay for them to eat other animals. Humans can choose what they eat, therefore it is not okay for them to eat animals.

Whether or not you agree with it, it isn't a crazy premise for morality.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 3:52 PM on August 30, 2005


tkchrist, while humans *need* to eat, they don't *need* to eat animals. hundreds of millions of humans around the world go their whole lives without eating meat.
posted by sineater at 4:18 PM on August 30, 2005


tkchrist, while humans *need* to eat, they don't *need* to eat animals. hundreds of millions of humans around the world go their whole lives without eating meat.

So what do we have incisors for then? Because we're supposed to be omnivorous....
posted by scheptech at 5:50 PM on August 30, 2005


[insert clever name here]:It is simply that animals (non-human) can not choose what they eat, therefore it is okay for them to eat other animals. Humans can choose what they eat, therefore it is not okay for them to eat animals.

Doesn't that presuppose that humans, of all animals, are the only ones with a sense of moral and/or free will?
Wouldn't that contradict the "we shouldn't eat animals because they're like us" school of thought?

Is it morally okay for a shark to eat you?

From my my point of view: No. From the shark's point of view: Absolutely!

One definition of morals might be the rules a group (e.g. society, community or species) adopts to ensure the survival of that group.
Hammerhead sharks, as a species, are no less likely to survive if one of them eats me.
posted by spazzm at 6:26 PM on August 30, 2005


Humans can choose what they eat, therefore it is not okay for them to eat animals.

Now that I think of it, this statement amounts to saying "because we can choose X, we must choose X" - I have a problem with circular logic.
posted by spazzm at 6:57 PM on August 30, 2005


"The fact that Bonobos act one way, and Chimps another is totally irrelevant to studying humans..."

That's absurd. These animals are closest to humans biologically. They're like us, we're like them. Of course studying them tells us things about ourselves. Unless you're a dualist and believe in something like a "soul" which humans have and animals do not, then you have to believe that human cognition and behavior is fundamentally similar to animal cognition and behavior and that we're most likely to find the similarities in the species with which we're most closely related.

True, I know people that are exceptionalists about humans that don't explicitly avow the existence of a soul; but they might as well, even if ultimately their idea of a "soul" isn't dualist, because they're still taking as an assumption that there is some incredibly important, deeply fundamental qualitative cognitive distinction between humans and all other living creatures. Why would there be? (And how convenient for our own self-justification.)

I cannot even begin to understand how anyone can claim that animals don't have feelings. "Feelings" form part of the most primitive parts of cognition, of course animals have feelings. And at least some of them have self-awareness, as well. (The mirror test for self-awareness, by the way, suffers from the flaw of being vision-centric, as humans are while many other animals are not.)

I think it's inevitable that humans will stop eating animals for ethical reasons. It's just going to take a while to get there. I still eat meat, by the way. But it's hard to justify.

Arguing that it's "right" to eat animals because humans are omnivores is yet another argument from nature and is just plain stupid. No one I know really and truly argues for a morality that is naturally-based—if they did, they'd have to allow for all sorts of other behaviors that come "naturally" to human beings which they are unlikely to defend. Like murder. Just give up the naturalistic arguments for morality and ethics, okay?

"There is not cross-species morality..."

Why not? Are you claiming this from an absolutist or relativistic perspective? If from an absolutist, then I'm probably not going to be able to argue with you as you must assume some sort of metaphysical moral order that, natch, has humans as being unique. But if you're a relativist, then there's absolutely no reason why a cross-species morality can't exist, providing the cultural context allows for it.

I hate human exceptionalism and anthropocentrism. Just so many awful, awful ideas and conventions arise from that viewpoint. And, it's worth mentioning, that viewpoint, at least in the west, is deeply enmeshed with Judeo-Christian dualism.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:45 PM on August 30, 2005


Hmm, I see this Dualism thing (I think he means the idea that absolute good and evil exist and are in conflict with each other?) as the most interesting of de Waals assertions. He says the idea or tendency to perceive in this way is inherited from apes.

So accepting his assertion as true, what does it mean for the validity of the concept itself? Is Dualism now seen to be more likely a true model of reality because now even the apes agree with us, as it were, or does this make it less likely to be true because the apes, primitive as they are, see things this way?
posted by scheptech at 12:51 AM on August 31, 2005


No, in my context I meant "dualism" as the belief in dual nature of the human soul and physical body.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:03 AM on August 31, 2005


...and to answer your questions, he's just claiming that the human tendency to an absolute morality (which sees "good" and "evil" as a priori) may be wired into our brains as, he claims, it is wired into primates' brains.

I don't see that this claim says anything either way about whether moral absolutism is true. It may not exist but we are wired to believe in a falsehood. It may exist and we're wired to belive in it because of its existence (like we're wired to believe in the existence of gravity, for example).

The one thing he is calling strongly into question is the human exceptionalism concerning morality. (That is, only we have, or are capable of having, the concept of morality.) Which is interesting because, for most people, that's a very counter-intuitive idea. But, in my opinion, just as I think many animals can be said to have "feelings", I'd claim that higher animals which are also primarily social creatures will also inevitably have some sense of "right" and "wrong".

Asserting both these things is sort of turning human exceptionalism on its head. Many moral philosophies try to build the foundation of morality in "love". While it's the cast that in doing so, they abstract "love" quite a bit, I don't think there's any examples where they completely disassociate this "love" from "love as emotion". Thus, I think, there's a human impulse—of whatever origin—to elevate Man above the animals on the basis of...emotion and morality (as best exemplified where they combine in the notion of "love"). For many people, "love" is the one emotion they're most keen on denying animals. (Which is odd, given how strong a tendency many/most people feel about their pets. One way people manage to hold both beliefs is by seeing animal "love" as being primarily visceral while they see human "love" as primarily ethereal.)
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:17 AM on August 31, 2005


Interesting indeed, well a couple ideas on the pro exceptional humans side of the arg:
1 - Some have a notion of God or something far more significant, and in some thought systems, better than themselves; animals don't conceive of any such thing or might they? Note I'm not saying this is right, wrong, or even a non-circular argument, I'm saying it exists and is uniquely human as far as we can tell.
2 - We are able to visualize, believe in, and work toward a better higher idealized view of ourselves, we can imagine in the first place, care about, and then indeed 'improve' ourselves internally, not just materially or in terms of practical education but morally, in how we chose to deal with each other; animals don't seem to conceptualize or practice anything like this.
3 - Humans are capable of recognizing and being faced with moral conundrums; animals seem to act from an 'instinct' that serves them quickly and in the moment, they don't appear to agonize over right and wrong.

Of course a few years back people used to say humans were defined by their use of tools until they observed chimps using sticks to knock down bananas and straws to collect ants so who knows.
posted by scheptech at 8:03 AM on August 31, 2005


Does this mean that if bonobos had a God he would look just like a giant bonobo and copulate 24/7?
posted by huskerdont at 9:49 AM on August 31, 2005


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