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Remembering Frans de Waal, who studied empathy and emotion in primates


The primatologist Frans de Waal has died. He dedicated his life to observing our closest relatives like bonobos and chimps, and he studied their capacity for empathy and cooperation. He also wrote a number of bestselling books about it. In the 1990s, Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich put one of them on the reading list for freshmen lawmakers. It was called "Chimpanzee Politics." That book detailed the power struggles of male chimps and helped popularize the term alpha male. But de Waal later lamented that the term had been misunderstood. He explained why in this 2018 TED Talk.


FRANS DE WAAL: You should not insult chimpanzees by using the wrong label.


DE WAAL: You should not call a bully an alpha male. Someone who's big and strong and intimidates and insults everyone is not necessarily an alpha male.

PFEIFFER: Alpha male chimps, he said, often protect the underdogs and show lots of empathy for others. De Waal was a professor at Emory University, and he died of stomach cancer last week at age 75. Sarah Brosnan was one of his colleagues and friends. She's a professor at Georgia State University, and she's with us to talk about him. And Sarah, I'm sorry you lost your friend.

SARAH BROSNAN: Thank you, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: How did you first cross paths with him?

BROSNAN: When I was an undergraduate, I became really interested in studying cooperation, and I was particularly interested in studying how animals make decisions about cooperation. Who are they going to cooperate with? And I'd actually never worked with a primate before, but I applied to work with Frans. I got invited out for an interview, and then I got offered a position to come out and work with him. And so I accepted it, and that was 25 years ago.

PFEIFFER: As I've read about Frans de Waal, it seems that he often spoke about how humans are not as unique or as special as we might think we are, and we have another piece of tape of him. It's him talking on Science Friday in 2005.


DE WAAL: As soon as we do something negative, we compare it 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.

PFEIFFER: Sarah, can you tell us more about his views on that?

BROSNAN: Well, that was really one of his biggest contributions - is pushing this point that there isn't as much distance between us and other animals as we might like to think that there is. And these days, there are lots of people who are studying these sorts of questions - empathy, cooperation, reconciliation, emotions in animals. But back when he started doing this 30, 40 years ago, that was a really iconoclastic view, and he got a lot of pushback from it. But he continued to push forward and look at these species. And he had such a depth of knowledge and such a great amount of research on them that he was able to demonstrate that that was, in fact, what we were seeing.

PFEIFFER: Why did people tiptoe around? Was there something offensive about making it seem that animals and humans are closer than we would like to believe we are, in terms of emotions and actions?

BROSNAN: Scientific fashions, for lack of a better word, come and go, just like any others. And there had been, prior to that, some anthropomorphisms about animals that didn't necessarily take the data into account. And so there was a real backlash against that. And so it was not considered appropriate to talk about things like friends or complex thought or positive emotions in other species. It is funny - we could talk about aggression, but we couldn't talk about friendship.

PFEIFFER: We have a clip from Fresh Air, when he was speaking on that show in 2019, that gets at this idea. Let's hear that.


DE WAAL: Thoughts and feelings, the mental processes, basically, were off-limits, which is sort of curious because Darwin already talked about the emotions in men and animals. And so Darwin was allowed to talk about it, and then we got this dark period in which we were told - as a student, I was told not to speak about these things.

BROSNAN: There had definitely been a swing back from Darwin, who wrote a book called "Expression Of Emotion In Man And The Animals" (ph), in which he explicitly compared them. And it had become very clinical, and Frans stepped in and changed that.

PFEIFFER: Beyond his work, is there a memory you can share of him that you think sums up who he was as a colleague and as a friend?

BROSNAN: Somewhere in the middle of my graduate career, we were working on fixing an apparatus, and it needed some electrical work. And my husband is an electrical engineer, and he came in to fix it. And he did a great job. And the next day, Frans said to me, I am so glad we could provide you with this great test of mate quality, Sarah (laughter).

PFEIFFER: Wait. Of make quality? Make quality?

BROSNAN: Mate. Mate quality (laughter).

PFEIFFER: Oh, mate. Mate quality. That's an interesting view of his view of the world and of animal and human behavior.

BROSNAN: He was laughing when he said it. He also came to our wedding.


PFEIFFER: I've also read that he was a good storyteller. Are there any stories he told that you remember that were particularly good, maybe in the way he told them?

BROSNAN: It's not a story, per se, but perhaps the most important thing he taught us was to watch the animals. Watch the monkeys. Watch the chimpanzees. And see what they are telling you because the most interesting research questions are the ones that the animals tell you are important and not the ones that you come up with on your own. And to this day, I tell my students the same thing.


PFEIFFER: That's Georgia State University professor Sarah Brosnan, remembering her colleague, the primatologist Frans de Waal, who died last week. Sarah, thanks for letting us get to know him a little bit.

BROSNAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.