IRA FLATOW, host:
For the rest of the hour, we're going to be going to pay a visit to some relatives: our closest primate relatives, actually, the bonobos and the chimps. And my next guest has spent many hours logging the behavior of these animals, trying to figure out how they negotiate the complexities of life in their respective communities. From violence to cooperation, to sex and empathy, how do the chimps and bonobos differ from us and each other? And what do we have--what do we all have--in common?
He has gathered his observations and data in a new book called "Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are." And that person is Frans de Waal. He is the C.H. Chandler Professor in the department of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta. He's also director of Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center.
Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
Dr. FRANS DE WAAL (Emory University; Yerkes National Primate Research Center): I'm glad to be here.
FLATOW: It's interesting that this book basically--I spent a lot of time reading it, and especially because I'm interested in the bonobos that are in the book. And lots of times we talk about, you know, human beings and chimps, but bonobos are--have a much different side to them, do they not?
Dr. DE WAAL: So bonobos are equally close to us genetically. People sometimes think that chimp is the only close relative that we have, but the bonobo is equally close. The bonobo is much sexier and more peaceful, friendlier, more empathic; a bit more elegant, also, in appearance. And so we can learn a lot from the bonobo, and that tells us quite a different story than the usual story you get about our human nature as nasty and selfish and violent. The bonobo tells a very different story.
FLATOW: You write that `Compared with the male-centered chimpanzee, the female-centered, erotic and peaceful bonobo offers a fresh way of thinking about human ancestry.' That's what you're talking about.
Dr. DE WAAL: Yeah. And if the last common ancestor was maybe more bonobolike--we don't know what kind of animal that was, but if it was bonobolike, then the whole story of the human evolutionary scenario becomes quite different.
FLATOW: Give me an example, quickly before the break--the difference between how a bonobo might act and how a chimpanzee might act in a typical case.
Dr. DE WAAL: OK. You give a cardboard box to some bonobos at the zoo; the first thing they do is have sex, and then they share the box and play with it and do things with it. You give it to chimpanzees; they first need to figure out who's getting the box and they will beat each other up or something like that or intimidate each other, but they go into a competitive mode. So that's right there a difference between the two.
FLATOW: And you think enough attention has not been paid to our bonobo side of us vs. our chimp side.
Dr. DE WAAL: That has been completely ignored. For the last 30 years we have only heard bad things about human nature, and the bonobo gives us a new look at that.
FLATOW: And we say we're acting like a monkey or something; you know, that's been a derogatory phrase. But it would be complimentary to say we're acting like bonobos.
Dr. DE WAAL: That would be OK. Yeah.
Dr. DE WAAL: That would be fine. Yeah.
FLATOW: Yeah. (Laughs) If we all, you know, acted more like bonobos, as you say, who knows where the world might have been.
All right. We're going to take a short break and come back and talk lots more with Dr. de Waal about his book, "Our Inner Ape," take your questions and talk about--maybe we need to look more at the bonobo side of our human nature. And we'll be right back. Our number is 1 (800) 989-8255; 1 (800) 989-TALK. Taking your calls, talking about why we are who we are and how we might compare ourselves to bonobos and chimps. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.
I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
We're talking this hour with Frans de Waal, who is author of a new book, "Our Inner Ape," in which he talks about how much influence bonobos and chimpanzees have on the way we look at ourselves.
Are they equal--are we equally distant genetically or on the tree there from each one of them equally?
Dr. DE WAAL: Yeah. You must have heard about the genome issue that came out in Nature just a month ago. And the chimpanzee is 98.5 percent identical to us genetically, and the same is true for the bonobo. So they're exactly equally close to us, so there's absolutely no reason to take the chimp always as model, as people have been doing.
FLATOW: And how--and was Jane Goodall responsible for that model that we have with the chimp, do you think?
Dr. DE WAAL: Not really. I think that was actually before her that the chimp became our prime model, because a chimp has been known so much longer than the bonobo. But it is true that when the discoveries of chimpanzee violence came along and chimpanzees killing each other in different territories, that all clicked together with the killer ape theories that were out there by Konrad Lorenz and other people--Robert Ardrey.
Dr. DE WAAL: And so the whole picture became like we are killer apes, that's all we are, and as soon as people do something bad, like in Rwanda or Bosnia or whatever, we say they're acting like animals.
Dr. DE WAAL: And so as soon as we do something negative, we're compared with our animal side. As soon as we do something nice and positive, we claim that as humane so we claim it as our own species. But in animals, in many animals, but in bonobos in particular, you can find all those positive tendencies as well.
FLATOW: And I was--yeah. I was shocked to see the many examples that you gave of a very human characteristic. And, you know, we always say what separates us from the other animals is our ability to have consciousness and have feeling, and the bonobos have empathy.
Dr. DE WAAL: Yeah.
FLATOW: And you give a couple of different, really interesting examples, how they really are empathetic.
Dr. DE WAAL: Yeah. Let me give an example so--at one zoo they had a male bonobo who had a heart condition, and as a result he wasn't too bright, and he would get lost it the building all the time. And after a while, after two weeks of the caretakers trying to get him to move to particular places, another male would take his hand and lead him to these places. Well, that's interesting, because it means he understood that this male was handicapped and had trouble. He understood the commands of the caretakers, and he was helping out. And that kind of actions, where you put yourself in the shoes of somebody else, are very typical of the bonobo.
FLATOW: You also--an interesting example was with an injured bird...
Dr. DE WAAL: Yeah, a bird...
FLATOW: ...that flew into the cave, flew into the glass in the...
Dr. DE WAAL: Yeah. A bonobo had a bird in a cage. It was stunned. And instead of playing with it or eating it or whatever other primates might do, the female took the bonobo and climbed to the highest point of her enclosure and enfolded the little wings of the bird, like a little airplane, and sent it out in the sky, which means that she was taking a look at the world from the perspective of a bird, which is very unusual. Of course, with another ape, she would never have done something like this. That would have been inappropriate. But with the bird, it was the appropriate kind of helping response.
FLATOW: Does that mean that the bonobos have consciousness, do you think?
Dr. DE WAAL: Well, I think all animals...
Dr. DE WAAL: ...have--conscious to some degree. I don't know exactly what consciousness is.
FLATOW: Yeah. Right.
Dr. DE WAAL: That's my problem, obviously.
FLATOW: Right. What--how would you define consciousness?
Dr. DE WAAL: That's the problem.
Dr. DE WAAL: There--people say, `Are animals conscious?' Then I ask them, `What is it?' And then we're stuck, usually.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: Right. But is there, say--so you're saying that we have the chimp side of us, but we have the bonobo side genetically that we do not give ourselves enough credit for--or we don't give the bonobos enough credit for, for having that kind of stuff.
Dr. DE WAAL: Yeah. We have two sides to us.
Dr. DE WAAL: So when we're at our--when we're showing bad behavior, we are worse than any other animal. We are the worst animals, in some ways. But when we are nice and positive and empathic, we are the best animals. So we have that whole spectrum in us. That's why I call us `bipolar apes.' We have both the nasty side and the positive side.
FLATOW: Do they have a nasty side, bonobos?
Dr. DE WAAL: They do. They do compete and, actually...
Dr. DE WAAL: ...they--since the females dominate the males, you should not look at that dominance as completely gentle, because they bite the males and they dominate them in a very fierce way.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. When did we realize that chimps and bonobos were separate, you know, and...
Dr. DE WAAL: That's--only in 1929 there was the official discovery of the chimp and bonobo, separate species. And since the bonobo has been studied very little in the field and since we have only, like, a hundred bonobos in captivity in the whole world, a lot less is known about them than about the chimpanzee.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1 (800) 989-8255. Todd in San Antonio. Hi, Todd.
TODD (Caller): Hey. I enjoy your show very much. I have a question about the bonobos. You mentioned that like to engage in sex. Are they monogamous or do they just sleep with multiple partners? What are they like in that regard?
Dr. DE WAAL: Well, we call them promiscuous, meaning that many males and many females have sex with each other. In addition, males have sex with males and females have sex with females, so it's not at all limited to opposite-sex partners. So they're really pan-sexual, you could say. And one of the reasons we think bonobos have so much sex--one is to keep the peace, let's say, because it's a way of resolving tensions between them, and the other one is as a device against male aggression, because by females having so much sex with so many males, all the males are sort of fathers of the offspring, and so that reduces maybe the aggression of the males.
FLATOW: Do you think the bonobos might be getting less attention because they are so sexual and you can't show that on--can't show, you know, copulation of bonobos on television?
Dr. DE WAAL: In the US there was a big problem, and that's why when Frans Lanting, the nature photographer, and I did a book on bonobos, the first thing we did is publish it in Germany. And the Germans put copulating bonobos on the front of their magazines and everything, and that's how we started out. And then we moved the operation to the US and tried to publish, and we did publish in the US. But in the US, you know, it's an extremely prudish place, and so bonobos were a problem. And to some degree, they still are, but I always notice that people are actually delighted that we have cousins like that who are in many ways very humanlike.
FLATOW: So what can we--can we actually--you know, what can we learn, and what as a scientist can you learn about human behavior by watching the bonobos and the chimps?
Dr. DE WAAL: Well, you can sort of triangulate now, because we have two close relatives who are quite different. And so if people say--some pessimists, they will say, `We will always be aggressive. We will always have war, because we come from a lineage of animals who kill each other.' Then you can bring up the bonobo and say, `The bonobo's equally close to us as the chimp, and they don't kill each other.' So in that sense, they already give us a different perspective on human nature. And I consider us basically apes. I know that Darwin said that we descended from the apes, but really, we are apes. We're not that different. We walk bipedally and we have big brains, but that's about the only difference that exists.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. While we're talking about evolution, I can't--you know, it's hard to ignore what's going on in the school systems and legal suits about teaching of, you know, creationism, intelligent design, whatever you like to talk to it. You must get asked this all the time when you talk about the apes, you know.
Dr. DE WAAL: Yeah.
FLATOW: How do you respond to people? I mean, you go on talk shows; you're talking about the book. The calls must be coming in from the heartland all the time.
Dr. DE WAAL: Constantly. We get constantly calls about ID, intelligent design. I've now reached a point that I almost say, `Well, let's teach it,' because it's an excellent opportunity to show that it's all nonsense. It's all bunk, basically, because if intelligent design is true it's based on the premise that we are sort of perfectly designed and that nature is perfectly designed. But we can test those sort of ideas. And if you take, for example, the flaws in design that exist--many flaws exist--the human back is a prime example of a flaw. We are descendants from four-legged animals, but our back never really caught up with our bipedal gait. And our back problems that so many people have is a flaw in the design. And we can come up with many of these examples, and basically, the evolutionary biologist looks at that and says, `Well, that's because evolution tinkers. Evolution plays around with things and modifies them, but it never designs from scratch.'
And so evolution is a beautiful alternative theory to intelligent design, and since intelligent design is supposed to be testable, I think we would very soon find that any test we do, it doesn't hold up. So we can use it as a sort of foil and explain how much more powerful evolutionary theory is in explaining what we see around us.
FLATOW: Are primates still evolving, do you think, or...
Dr. DE WAAL: We probably stopped evolving, except for disease. You had just previously this program on the flu.
Dr. DE WAAL: When it comes to disease, we have to keep up, and we keep evolving, and the diseases keep evolving. And the flu virus is a good example. But other than that, I think we have basically stopped because we are interfering too much with evolutionary pressures. But the other primates, I think, if we would give them a chance--which we're not really doing...
FLATOW: We're eating them. Right.
Dr. DE WAAL: Yeah, we're eating them and we're...
FLATOW: We're eating them.
Dr. DE WAAL: ...destroying their habitat.
Dr. DE WAAL: But if we would give them a chance, they would keep evolving.
FLATOW: Interesting. 1 (800) 989-8255. Penny in San Francisco. Hi. Welcome.
PENNY (Caller): Yeah. Hi.
PENNY: I have a question about bonobos and their ability to learn language. I know there's a bonobo named Kanzi at Emory, and Kanzi seems to be better than almost any other ape at learning language. And I wondered if that--I mean, my theory about that is that it has to do with the bonobo's highly evolved social sort of way of being. Could you speak to that at all?
Dr. DE WAAL: Yeah. I'm not sure that what bonobos have, including Kanzi, is actually language. Kanzi is extremely good at understanding spoken English, and that may relate, as you say, to his sensitivity to the moods of others, the intentions of others, being in tune with everybody else, and then adding to that his language knowledge, which is pretty impressive. And--but as far as producing language, I'm not so convinced that that's what they're doing.
FLATOW: Didn't you write in your book--was it Kanzi who actually helped you teach another bonobo to speak English or understand English?
Dr. DE WAAL: Kanzi interfered when someone tried to--What was it again? They tried to speak English to a naive bonobo, and the bonobo didn't understand anything, and Kanzi then instructed that bonobo what was meant. So, for example, someone would say, `Do you want to groom?' and then Kanzi would make the grooming movements on that other bonobo, so--showing that he can even go as far as instructing somebody else.
FLATOW: Well, you know, we always hear about the apes doing that, you know? We never hear about the bonobos doing that.
Dr. DE WAAL: Bonobos are...
FLATOW: I don't get it. I mean, but...
Dr. DE WAAL: Bonobos are--but...
FLATOW: ...the gorillas, you know...
Dr. DE WAAL: Yeah.
FLATOW: We never see--you know, they make movies, but we don't make movies about bonobos. Maybe it's that sexual thing that we're talking about.
Dr. DE WAAL: No. No, the--yeah, Hollywood would not want that, absolutely, right?
FLATOW: Correct. Well, thanks for calling, Penny.
PENNY: Thank you.
FLATOW: That answer your question?
1 (800) 989-8255 is our number. Let's go to Nicholas in Louisville. Hi.
NICHOLAS (Caller): Hi. How you doing? My question was for the doctor. It was kind of similar to the last caller's question. I was just wondering whether bonobos could be taught sign language, maybe like some of the apes that have been taught.
Dr. DE WAAL: Yeah. Bonobos have been taught things with symbols, symbol use. And so their language abilities--I don't know how well-developed they are, but they have, certainly, some of that. And the language debate is sort of interesting, because, you know, in the old days linguists would define language as symbolic communication. And then when the apes came along, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, who were capable of symbolic communication, the linguists immediately moved it to syntax. They said, `The essence of language is syntax.' And so the linguists have been moving the definition of language around in order to keep the apes out, which is a very common strategy in all of science, basically. As soon as apes can do something, you're going to get redefinitions in order to keep the human status up to where it was.
FLATOW: They move the goalposts.
Dr. DE WAAL: Yeah, that's what they're doing all the time.
FLATOW: And so as these bonobos show--I was just seeing something the other day where--I remember which apes were making tools now. They saw--and they'd never seen them make tools before, the kind of...
Dr. DE WAAL: That's right. Gorillas. Wild gorillas using tools.
FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah.
Dr. DE WAAL: Well, that's another funny thing, is in captivity all the apes are good tool users. So for example, the best tool users are orangutans in captivity. But in the field for 30 years all they had seen orangutans do is scratch their butt with a stick or something like that. And so people always said, `Well, in the wild they're not doing it.' But then, of course, orangutans were discovered to do it, and usually you can assume if animals can do something in captivity that is very impressive, they're using it one way or another in the field.
FLATOW: And so you just haven't seen it happen...
Dr. DE WAAL: Yeah.
FLATOW: ...if you just look hard enough. Talking with Frans de Waal, author of "Our Inner Ape" on TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.
Talking about these bonobos and the apes. So you write in your book about some interesting observations you made about the "Larry King" show, talk show. Tell me why you went in that direction in talking about Larry King and the observations themselves.
Dr. DE WAAL: Well, the observation I did not do myself, but I feel that the social sciences are totally ignoring the topic of power and dominance in human relationships. If you open a textbook in social psychology, they barely mention power and dominance and they only mention it as abuse, abuse of power or something like that. But power and dominance are very prevalent and very common and very well-detected in human society, and soon as you walk into a room you see what the power of relationships are--we're very sensitive to it. And then the "Larry King" show, of course, what they did is they taped his interviews and they noticed that in the low frequencies of the voice, which is called the low hum, there are adjustment being made.
So for example, your low hum is different from my low hum, but if you talk with me--let's say I'm a high-ranking guest--in Larry King's case he had, for example, Bill Clinton on--that was a high-ranking guest--he would adjust his hum to Bill Clinton's. Whereas if he had a low-ranking guest--according to that particular article the lowest-ranking guest was Dan Quayle--if he had a low-ranking guest the low-ranking guest would adjust his low hum to Larry King. And so they found in that study, and then they followed it up with many other experiments, that we are constantly communicating status to each other by this low hum. We do it unconsciously. We can barely detect it but the machines can detect it. So even if you talk with your boss over the telephone, you're communicating status difference with him. And so that's a very important part of our social being, but it is to a large degree neglected, I think.
FLATOW: That's different than body language then.
Dr. DE WAAL: The body language, of course, also very important. The swagger that Bush has, for example, you know, putting his arms aside is very chimpanzeelike posture with the arms out and he doesn't have the hair that he can stand up like the chimps do, but these kind of swaggers that leaders have. Bill Clinton also had a swagger. And those are very strong status indicators.
FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255. Back to the phones. Let's go to Mike in New York. Hi, Mike.
MIKE (Caller): Hi there. I have a question for Dr. de Waal. You know, in human society we have tremendous diversity in culture. Anybody that's ever been to Sri Lanka or Cambodia would be struck by how much hugging there is or the different distances that people stand between each other, and with the bonobos and the chimps, it's not clear from what you've discovered how much of that is genetic and how much of it is environmental, and I wonder whether anybody has ever taken a baby chimp and put it into a bonobo colony, or put a baby bonobo and put it into a chimp colony and see whether they acculturate or whether they present or manifest the behavior that you would expect. Thank you very much. I'll take the answer off the air.
FLATOW: All right. Good question.
Dr. DE WAAL: Yeah, so we do speak actually of animal culture and we do actually experiments on that, and animal culture is a term that we use when there is behavior that is being transmitted by learning and social contact rather than by genes. And so, for example, some chimpanzee groups--they will crack nuts with stones and you have very similar chimpanzee groups in very similar forests who have stones and nuts available, but they don't do anything with them. And we call that cultural differences.
Now between bonobos and chimps, they are genetically different; they are two different species. And we also know that all the sex that the bonobos show, they show it in captivity; in all the groups that I've heard of they show it in the field. And chimps even under identical circumstance--even if you keep chimps in the identical enclosure at a zoo, they will not start doing this sort of thing. And so all that rampant sex that is going on and female dominance and so on--those basic differences I think are inherited, are genetic differences between the two species.
FLATOW: Very interesting. We're going to have to take a short break, but don't go away 'cause we're coming right back to talk more with Dr. Frans de Waal about his new book "Our Inner Ape." Taking your calls; talk about this female-dominated society and more about your questions. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.
I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
We're talking this hour about "Our Inner Ape"; it's a new book out by my guest Frans de Waal, who is professor in the department of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, and the director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Our number: 1 (800) 989-8255.
There was a story in the news recently about a couple who had raised a chimp, but the chimp was taken away from them, and they went to visit the chimp in the zoo, and the other chimps attacked the man.
Dr. DE WAAL: Yeah. A very bad attack, actually.
FLATOW: I mean--they--how did they attack him?
Dr. DE WAAL: Well, they got loose at some point and they attacked him from behind, and they ripped off his hands and feet and testicles also, including, and that's actually not unusual for male chimpanzees to go for the genitals of other males. So it was a very bad attack, and there's sort of two sides to it. One is a territorial side; male chimpanzees are extremely territorial and they don't like strangers and maybe they saw him as an intruder. But for me, the more interesting part was that he and his wife were feeding a particular chimp that they always came back to who had been raised by them in the home, and so they were actually celebrating the birthday of that female chimp and bringing a big cake to her, and probably sharing it with her. And I'm very interested in inequity, and we do actually experiments on inequity. Primates don't like inequity, just like humans don't like to get less than somebody else. And so if you have a situation where two people come every time for a particular chimp, and give that chimp a lot of good food and no one else is getting that, that's a bad situation. That would be like you having six kids and feeding one of them always goodies and the other ones never get anything. That would create resentment.
And so we actually do experiments on that. I did an experiment with Sarah Brosnan on capuchin monkeys where we would give a monkey as a reward a piece of cucumber. And if you do that--put two monkeys side by side and you reward them for a certain activity with pieces of cucumber, they will do it 25 times in a row. But if you give one of them grapes and the other one keeps getting the cucumber, grapes are far more attractive to them than cucumber pieces. The one who gets the cucumber then becomes angry and becomes agitated. First of all, they start refusing to do the task, but they also throw the cucumber pieces out of their cage at you. And so they--we call it inequity aversion. They don't like inequity, and all the primates I think they have a very strong sensitivity to it. And of course, humans...
Dr. DE WAAL: ...in our society--we have this sense of fairness which relates very strongly to that sort of avoidance of inequity.
FLATOW: Right. And so you're saying that you can use the apes as a laboratory to study these primal emotions that we all have.
Dr. DE WAAL: Yeah, because there is a tend--there was a tendency--not anymore, I think--but in economics to look at humans as completely rational beings. We are completely rational optimizers of our benefits. But now economists are coming to the realization that humans are emotional beings and that we sometimes act irrationally. Because, for example, throwing good pieces of cucumber out of your cage is not a rational thing to do. And we are the same. If I hear tomorrow that my closest college who does the same work as I do has a salary that is twice my size, I get very pissed off...
Dr. DE WAAL: ...and I may actually quit my job, which is an irrational act...
Dr. DE WAAL: ...because until that time I was perfectly happy.
FLATOW: Right. And you would say, I would imagine, that if you were studying "animals," quote, unquote, you would say they wouldn't do that because that's not a survival technique to throw your food away.
Dr. DE WAAL: No, it certainly isn't.
FLATOW: Right? No.
Dr. DE WAAL: But...
FLATOW: But it shows the emotion that's involved.
Dr. DE WAAL: Yeah. But we also think that there's an evolutionary reason for these particular emotions. For example, in the case of capuchin monkey or the chimpanzee, they're very cooperative primates. Now if you're highly cooperative, you need to watch what you get. You--I don't want to cooperate with you if I don't get a fair share afterwards. And so when you're a cooperator, you need to pay attention to `Do I get less or do I get more than somebody else?'
FLATOW: Do bonobos do a lot of wheeling and dealing, like we humans do?
Dr. DE WAAL: Yeah, they're all transactionalists, what you could call it, like `I will help you become the alpha male but then you give me access to the females, and if you don't then I withdraw my support and you're gone also.' You know, so, yeah, that kind of political deals are very common.
FLATOW: And do the females--do they take advantage of, you know, the sexual desires for them to get what they might, you know, get out of the males?
Dr. DE WAAL: You use every weapon that you have and, yes, the females have that as a weapon, and for example, bonobo females--there's sort of two sides to that. The older bonobo females are dominant over males, at least collectively.
Dr. DE WAAL: And so they get what they want anyway. But the younger females--they are not yet dominant over males and they use sex to get favors. And so yeah, they will approach a male who has good food and have sex with him and then get a lot of that food, yeah.
FLATOW: So the older ones are saying, `I've done that trick. I've learned how to be smarter.'
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. DE WAAL: The older ones have very effective alliances and that's how they dominate the males, because an adult female bonobo is not bigger than a male. She's smaller than a male and she doesn't have the canine teeth of a male, so she has to work together with other females; otherwise they would never be dominant.
FLATOW: And they cooperate.
Dr. DE WAAL: They do. They do. They're very good at that. Yeah.
FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255 is our number. Let's go to--OK, let's try Peter in Detroit. Hey, Peter.
PETER (Caller): Good afternoon, gentlemen.
FLATOW: Hi there.
PETER: Great topic today. Professor, I'm curious about the comparison in brain sizes between chimpanzees and bonobos and I'm struck to this thought of thinking about the comparison in brain sizes between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, Neanderthals having the larger brain size and yet being eradicated by the Homo sapiens, and I was wondering if you could comment on any comparisons that have been done. And I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you.
FLATOW: Thank you. Drive carefully.
Dr. DE WAAL: Yeah, I am not sure that brains explain everything, so for example, Neanderthals--yes, they have a slightly larger brain than the human brain, but maybe their immune system was not up to par, or maybe something else came up that--maybe they were feeding on other sources than we were, and so I'm not sure that brain size is necessarily the measure of everything. But it is true that humans have a brain size that are three times that of a chimpanzee, and so we are definitely quite a bit smarter than a chimpanzee. Between chimps and bonobos, we don't know much of a difference between those two.
FLATOW: Go to Diane in Davis, California. Hi, Diane.
DIANE (Caller): Oh, hi. I have noticed very recently that there's a large amount of new information being published in the medical journals as a result of the sequencing of the chimp genome. And although a lot of that information is very exciting, nothing is usually mentioned about the importance of also studying the behavior of these animals in connection with the genetics and also the importance, these days, of the conservation because they are more endangered than they ever have been, and I think that scientists need to be bringing that to the public more. And I'd like to know what Dr. de Waal thinks about that.
Dr. DE WAAL: Well, the situation in the field is definitely very dire; it's very bad. I used to be fairly optimistic and think, well, there will be enough bonobos and chimps surviving, but nowadays I hear that the graphs are that by 2040 or 2050 most of those animals will be gone, and that's because most of the habitat will be gone. And so the situation in the field is pretty terrible.
As far as genetics and the genetic differences between bonobos and chimpanzees go, there was a very recent study I think six months ago, which actually came out of the Yerkes Primate Center but by a different team of people, where they found a little piece of DNA that is involved in affiliation and bonding. It's a microsatellite, it's called, and that little piece of DNA that they found it in humans--it's related to hormones that relate to bonding--they said, well, let's look at chimpanzees and bonobos. And guess what? What they found is that the bonobos have it and the chimps don't. So that makes us think--that's very exciting news because it makes us think that maybe the last common ancestor of humans, chimps and bonobos had that sort of bonding gene, or whatever it is, a social gene, that is absent in the chimpanzee. And so there is now some speculation in that regard.
FLATOW: You write that political ideology and biology are awkward bedfellows, but you do make the case that we can learn something about what makes a successful society from watching the apes. And can we draw any lessons here in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina?
Dr. DE WAAL: Well, that's an interesting topic because when that happens, the people who were locked up in the dome in Louisiana, they said, `They're treating us like animals; they're leaving us behind like animals.' And I was thinking, well, that's not what most animals will do. There are animals who would leave you behind--sharks will leave you behind probably. But social animals such as dolphins and chimpanzees and bonobos and so on--they don't leave the unfortunate behind.
So there is this view in society, especially actually in American society because social Darwinism has been so important here--there is this view that the world is a jungle, everyone competes with everyone and we will all be better off that way. But actually that's not how the Darwinian world works. The Darwinian world has produced very social animals, such as chimps, bonobos and us, which don't leave the unfortunate behind. So for example, in the forest of Tai Forest in Ivory Coast, they have observed the chimpanzees when they are heavily injured, which sometimes happens by leopards--the others slow down, they lick the wounds of the ones who are injured, they share their food with them, and so there is actually a tendency to take care of those who are less fortunate. And so Hurricane Katrina exposed actually a lot of callousness in this particular society, and if people say that that's the way the natural world works, I object to that because that's not necessarily how it works.
FLATOW: And you write in--you show in examples that cooperation breaks down if the benefits aren't shared by all the participants.
Dr. DE WAAL: Yeah, that relates to the equity issue. Is that...
FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Dr. DE WAAL: ...if we are cooperators and we work together and we get good benefits out of that and you claim everything, I lose interest in the operation obviously, and primates are exactly the same. So they're willing to cooperate, but they watch what they get out of it, and so a certain amount of equity and fairness in society needs to be there. Otherwise, the cooperation is going to break down.
FLATOW: So how much have we--I mean, the message of your book I think is that we really are parts of these chimps and parts of these bonobos and if we just would spend some time looking at those parts we might learn a lot about ourselves.
Dr. DE WAAL: Yeah.
FLATOW: And how do we spend that time? How do we find that ti--where do we look? Do we go watch them?--I mean, like you do or...
Dr. DE WAAL: Yeah. Well, I'm paid for that. You know, so that's different from other people. So I'm paid for it, and my students work on it and write dissertations on it. But the regular person--what you can do is indeed go to the zoo, but then you should watch more than two minutes because the average--we have clocked people at the zoo...
Dr. DE WAAL:. ...the average is two minutes, and then they say--they walk away and then they say, `I could watch them for hours.' Well, I can tell you, do watch them for hours. And if you do spend time--if you go to a zoo and you decide, OK, for three hours I'm going to watch these primates, in those three hours you're going to see very interesting things, much more interesting than what you get to see in two minutes.
FLATOW: Where can you find bonobos in zoos? Are they--they're not as common.
Dr. DE WAAL: No, the San Diego Zoo, the Cincinnati Zoo, the Columbus Zoo, the Milwaukee Zoo, the Jacksonville Zoo--there are not many bonobos in the world, but we have them in this country.
FLATOW: Yeah, well, let me ask a question after I remind everybody that I'm Ira Flatow, and this is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
Talking with Frans de Waal, author of "Our Inner Ape," a really good, interesting book. Where are bonobos found in the wild? Where do we...
Dr. DE WAAL: They only live in what is now ironically called the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is basically a big political mess, and it's in area about the size of Great Britain--a forested area. It's still one of the best-protected forested areas, but they're already logging in there and there's--yeah, and we think there's maybe 10 to 20,000 bonobos left there.
FLATOW: All right. And they're dying out because of their--are they being eaten like the chimps are being eaten?
Dr. DE WAAL: They are being hunted. Yes, it's all very precarious, yeah.
FLATOW: You know, you talked about you get paid to do this and it sounds like a great job, but you reveal in your book that it can get a bit tedious at times.
Dr. DE WAAL: Yeah, because we're not just sitting there and watching them.
Dr. DE WAAL: So you have a...
FLATOW: Give us an idea of the life of a bonobo watcher.
Dr. DE WAAL: You have a keyboard in front of you...
Dr. DE WAAL: ...and you type in the data, and if a big fight breaks out among the chimpanzees or bonobos, I cannot handle it on a keyboard. I have to speak it in or videotape it, so I speak in a narrative or I videotape it, and then afterwards we code it. But basically you end up, I have it in the computer now I think, 200,000 lines of behavior that I can analyze. So then I need to write a program or have a programmer do that, and go through all the data. So the science part of it, which ends up with quantification and graphs and all of this, is very tedious.
Dr. DE WAAL: The fun is just to talk to the chimps and see them and say hello to them and stuff like that.
FLATOW: And you mention that one of the biggest compliments that chimps can pay to you is to treat you like furniture.
Dr. DE WAAL: Yeah, they do that. Most of the time when I walk by the enclosure or look at them, they do as if I don't exist. What I always find very funny is if I bring a guest. They hate strangers, so me they're completely used to, but they don't like strangers. And so when I bring a guest, they're mad at me for bringing the guest, so they will spit at me and throw stuff at me, which they never do, but they do that because that guest is there. And they don't do it at the guest 'cause apparently they blame me rather than that person.
FLATOW: Can you do what humans do and bring them some gifts to mollify them?
Dr. DE WAAL: Oh, they will certainly go for that. Yeah.
Dr. DE WAAL: I--another funny story is that I have an office that overlooks the chimpanzees. And one day I came in and my whole window was spattered with mud, and I didn't understand it because they never throw anything at that window. And then I heard that some people had been in there laying a new cable, and so there had been some strangers in my office without me present, and that's about the worst thing that can happen according to the chimpanzees and so they have sprayed the whole window with mud.
FLATOW: Wow. In the last minute that we have, where is the cutting edge of your research? What would you like to know or do if...
Dr. DE WAAL: We're doing a lot of research on empathy. I think empathy is a very understudied topic. In humans it's a bit better-studied; in children certainly it's studied. But in animals it's ignored, and that's partly because there's a taboo on emotions in animals, but that's disappearing at the moment, and so I think it is time to start studying empathy and emotional connectiveness in animals.
FLATOW: Yeah, there was that story about the boy who fell into the habitat.
Dr. DE WAAL: Yeah, that was at the Brookfield Zoo where a boy fell in with gorillas and a gorilla female saved him and brought him to safety, and that actually opened the eyes of many people, and Bill Clinton held up Binti Jua the gorilla as an example for humanity, and so yeah, that made a big impression, but actually what the gorilla did was not that special because a gorilla would do something like that for any other gorilla, so in this case it was just applied to us.
FLATOW: Yeah, well, same family.
Dr. DE WAAL: Yeah.
FLATOW: It's all in the family. Thank you very much, Dr. de Waal, for...
Dr. DE WAAL: You're welcome.
FLATOW: ...talking with us. Frans de Waal is professor in the department of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta. He's also a director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. His new book just out is called "Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are." A really interesting read; I recommend it to all of you.
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Have a great weekend. We'll see you next week. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.