Posted on19 October 2011.
Interview with Dr. de Waal is a C. H. Candler Professor and Director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes Primate Center.
- How did you start on this path? I was always interested in animals, kept many as a child, and then later went on to study biology. Moving to primates was more of an accident, a lucky one, because I like the comparisons with human behavior.
- What were some of the unexpected bumps along the way? The main one is theoretical, with many scientists trained at the time to adopt taboos on animal emotions and animal cognition. It sounds strange nowadays, but saying that animals may feel something, or are able to solve a problem, was not language that was allowed. All of this has changed, of course, and we are now much more free to discuss animals and the similarities with humans.
- What was the biggest epiphany and how did it reinforce your course? I discovered that chimpanzees reconcile after fights, this happened in the 1970s. It was revolutionary, because until then everyone had looked at primate behavior as purely competitive, even aggressive. The need to kiss and embrace after a fight was counterintuitive. This topic of conflict resolution became very big in years to follow, with hundreds of studies, of which I am now the founding father.
- Tell us about yourself. What are two things you want to share with our readers that might be unexpected or surprising or encourage someone in your field of work to follow in your footsteps? I am very much interested in art. I thought about going to art school and I became an avid photographer. I have published books with animal photographs. I don’t see science and art as separate domains.In my technical papers I am very much a scientist, relatively dry and statistical. But in my books I am more like a philosopher, trying to connect religion, morality and politics with the behavior observed in our fellow primates.
- Without telling us what you’re going to talk about, what is the one thing you hope people will do after they hear you speak? I try to connect human and animal behavior. This means inducing respect for the intelligence and emotions of animals. I elevate them a little, and it means that corresponding human behavior may be seen as less unique, more biological than assumed, perhaps simpler,. So , I am pushing humans down a little. Hopefully, people will come away with the feeling of greater similarity than they thought existed.