College Quarterly
Winter 2006 - Volume 9 Number 1
Reviews Our Inner Ape
Frans de Waal
New York: Riverhead Books, 2005

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Among the quintessential sophomoric essay topics in courses as diverse as anthropology and zoology (with literature and philosophy secured comfortably in between), the issue of “human nature” must surely rank near the top of any list.

Western civilization has been particularly affected by the related problems of human origins and the essence of humanity since before the invention of the written word. Many of the stories we have told ourselves about whom and what we are posit a major distinction between a time of innocence and a time of sin.

Mirroring early anthropological inquiries into the differences between prehistoric, preliterate cultures and our own, the biblical book of Genesis (itself part of an ancient oral tradition) posited a time of blissful ignorance in which humans were at one with nature. Then, our evolving big brains got us into trouble. No longer satisfied to be made in the image of God, we chose to appropriate other divine characteristics. The result was that we exchanged our wildness for wisdom, and thereby fell from grace. To partake of the tree of knowledge—especially the knowledge of the difference between good and evil—was tantamount to setting ourselves up as rivals to God. This did not sit well; accordingly, we were expelled from the Garden of Eden (located, in all likelihood, near the suburbs of contemporary Baghdad, and forced to make our way on our wits alone—not a cheerful prospect as the ensuing epochs have forcefully demonstrated.

In our exile from bliss, questions have persistently arisen concerning ourselves and our fate. Sang the Psalmist (8:4) to his Lord: “What is man that Thou art mindful of him?” Answers have been notably slow in coming. This was acceptable enough before the “the renaissance” and the subsequent “age of progress”; however, at the time when the confluence of commerce and conquest set boats off from Europe to find a speedy route to “Cathay,” it befell that Europeans in their travels encountered a large number of diverse and demonstrably pre-civilized peoples. Accordingly, and not accidentally, the questions concerning human nature became more urgent and more interesting. If the natives of Africa, America and the antipodes were genuinely human, they could be said to possess aboriginal legal rights, a sticky point to the present day. Still, the papal bull Sublimus Deus in 1537 settled the question. Aboriginals were deemed to have souls and therefore to be eligible for conversion to the Christian faith. Although the US Constitution modified that Pope’s declaration and arithmetically reduced slaves to only 60% human, it nevertheless followed that tribal people were undoubtedly the cultural ancestors of Europeans and were therefore more primitive versions of modern people. What did this betoken?

Leading literary and philosophical minds put themselves to the test, and the result was a commodious catalogue of speculation. As early as 1611, William Shakespeare entertained us with Prospero’s encounter with the “other” in The Tempest. Scarcely a century later (1719), Dafoe gave us Robinson Crusoe, thus further developing the colonial relationship. Meanwhile, reflecting on the “state of nature,” Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan, 1651), John Locke (Second Treatise on Government, 1670) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Discourse on Inequality, 1754, and The Social Contract, 1762) offered various interpretations of the character and conditions of early humanity. For Hobbes, life was “nasty, brutish and short”; for Rousseau, wickedness was attributable not to human nature but to the unnatural aspects of so-called civilization. The former was called a “realist,” the latter was deemed a “romantic”; Locke, the consummate liberal, stood unsteadily in the middle. Subsequently, the literature of tourism and imperialism supplemented the various positions admirably. Herman Melville’s Typee (1846) and the poetry of Rudyard Kipling (e.g., The White Man’s Burden, 1899) are therefore memorable, though born of distinctly different sentiments.

What all of these examples have in common is a singular absence of empirical evidence for their various views of the “other” and, of course, of us. True, Hobbes thought of himself as being to the study of humanity what Galileo was to the study of the heavens. His inquiries, however, were decidedly “thought” experiments. Ethnography, to say nothing of the human genome project, was still centuries in the future.

Those centuries, of course, have now come and passed. The 20th was especially interesting in terms of its efforts to employ scientific methods to discern what, if anything, lay at the core of humanity. In broad strokes, two main approaches stand out. The first may be called “culturalist” and affirms that human beings are defined by their environment, especially their social environment. So, as essentially “blank slates,” we find that society makes its marks upon us and that we grow to take on the qualities of our neighbours. Aggressive societies produce aggressive individuals; passive societies produce passive individuals. Cooperation and competition are not in our genes but in our selves, insofar as our selves are socially and not biologically constructed. The second may be called a number of things, but the current fashion seems to favour phrases such as “sociobiology,” “evolutionary psychology” or, to the less generous, “biological reductionism.” This group affirms the primacy of genetic dispositions, a strict Darwinism and, occasionally, an insistence upon Richard Dawkins’ so-called “selfish gene” which implies that human culture and, indeed, individual human organisms are nothing but a gene’s way of replicating itself.

Now, the fascinating fact about both sides in this debate is that each side denies that it is what the other claims it to be. Culturalists from Ashley Montagu to Richard Lewontin have denied vociferously that they are indifferent to genetics. Of course, they say, biology plays an important role in the grand theatre of life. Likewise, their antagonists from Robert Ardrey to Steve Pinker have denied equally vociferously that they ignore cultural forms.

Each, it seems is willing to meet the other, but just not half-way.

Accordingly, there remains a battlefield strewn with the carcasses of straw men and dead horses, where political vermin feed on the remains of lost arguments. The culturalists have been unfairly labeled revolutionary Marxists because they apprehend the possibility of positive change, and the sociobiologists have been attacked as reactionary throwbacks to a Spencerian sort of social Darwinism because they seek to link biology and behaviour in a way that limits our conscious capacity to learn from our mistakes. Somewhere along the way, both Darwin and Marx seem to have been lost.

It is therefore with some sense of relief that I greet a new voice to what has lately come dangerously close to cacophony in the rest of the debate. Frans de Waal is a primatologist. His scientific background and much of his narrative places him, albeit somewhat uncomfortably, on the side of “biological reductionism.” He is eager, however, to clarify the relationships among the various apes and to take note of some impressive differences. The dominant objects of study for primatologists over the past half century were standard chimpanzees. These were said to be our closest relatives and, upon inspection, the prospects for a biological basis for cooperation and compassion looked dim. Chimpanzees have a distinctively hostile streak. They are inclined to bad behaviour up to and including cannibalism. Says the renowned naturalist, Jane Goodall: “If chimps had guns and knives and knew how to handle them, they would use them as humans do.” Thanks to this and other observations, humans have already been stuck with the tag, “the naked ape” and our “African genesis” linked us to aggressive, territorial ancestors whose proclivity for violence we were said to share.

De Waal, however, opens up a dramatically different perspective for lay readers. It stems, he says, in large measure from changes in public attitudes toward business. In the hey-day of competitive individualism unfettered laissez-faire was celebrated in the far-famed remark uttered by Michael Douglas in the film, Wall Street (1987): “Greed is good.” Now, in the era of Enron and Wal-mart, people are not so sure. There has been what de Waal calls a change of heart. Research, or at least that kind of research that finds itself reported in popular books on evolution, has begun to emphasize the development of ethics, morality, cooperation and compassion. Self-interest may not have departed, but now science writers seem increasingly concerned with “enlightened” self-interest.

De Waal’s own book focuses attention on the bonobo. While the chimp’s behaviour is characterized as “hierarchical and murderous,” thus giving rise to our self-description as “killer apes,” the bonobos are “a happy-go-lucky bunch with healthy sexual appetites. Peaceful by nature,” he says, “they belie the notion that ours is a purely bloodthirsty lineage.”

Our Inner Ape goes on to explain that bonobos have been systematically studied and uniformly shown to display “no deadly warfare, little hunting, no male dominance, and enormous amounts of sex.” It is hard to decide whether zoologists in the 1950s and the 1960s were reluctant to discuss bonobos because of their placid or because of their erotic behaviour. Whichever (or both), de Waal concludes that “bonobos make love, not war. They’re the hippies of the primate world.” In one of those pointless “what if” questions, de Waal muses about what would have happened if humans had discovered bonobos first and chimps later. Since bonobos do not fit the ideologically established views of human nature (i.e., they could not provide a ready-made rationale for capitalism), they might simply have been ignored. If, however, they were scrutinized as keys to the core of human nature, he continues, “discussion might not revolve as much around violence, warfare, and male dominance, but rather around sexuality, empathy, caring and cooperation.” If, in the alternative, “studies had found that they massacre one another, everyone would know about bonobos.”

Chimpanzees, to be fair, are not complete villains. There are ample recorded instances of chimps caring for others of their species, and even for strangers. Still, the single greatest cause of death among the youngest chimps is infanticide.

De Waal’s book is filled with extraordinarily engaging stories—singular, if not strictly anecdotal, evidence—that reveal at least the surface complexity of his subject. He ranges over a variety of primates with examples of the remarkable way that unusual individuals—both in and outside a species—are treated in non-human environments. Among a troop of rhesus macaques, for example, lived a female who possessed a triplet of chromosomes with a resulting condition resembling Down’s syndrome in humans. Though these animals normally punish “deviant” behaviour, this individual was excused even the most serious errors “as if everyone realized that nothing they did would ever change her ineptness.” From another perspective, de Waal recounts the experience of an American woman with Asperger’s syndrome (a form of autism). Unable to cope with human society, she “found inner peace after she began taking care of zoo gorillas. Or,” he suggests, “perhaps it was the gorillas who took care of her.” In the company of creatures who did not unsettle her by making direct eye contact or demanding precise and immediate answers to their questions, she found her work therapeutic as the gorillas, in Dawn Prince-Hughes’ account, practiced “looking without looking, and understanding without speaking,” using postures and other non-verbal actions to convey empathy and bonding. Patience is a virtue; among gorillas, it is a way of life.

De Waal’s book may not be for rigorous scientists who could quite easily dismiss such descriptions as blatant anthropomorphism, or who could just as easily recognize how much their scientistic books and articles are socially constructed by dominant socio-political ideologies and seek to escape the implied criticism. After all, Darwin was profoundly influenced by the quite faulty demographic analysis of Robert Malthus, and Darwin was a far greater intellectual than the likes of Richard Dawkins!

Some may regret that de Waal does not confront as directly as he might the enduring “nature vs. nurture” controversy, preferring to allow the ambiguity to remain. In his closing chapter, however, he approvingly quotes E. O. Wilson’s comment that biology holds us “on a leash” and will only permit us to stray so far. For practical purposes, the serious question is “how far” is “so far.” Here de Waal shines, for he is quite willing to link his science to his politics and thus enhance our understanding, rather than to hide behind a façade of objectivity and thus obscure his own agenda.

The US, he bravely asserts, used to have the world’s healthiest, most robust citizens but now ranks at the bottom of the world’s industrial countries in terms of longevity, while being at the top in teenage pregnancy and infant mortality. De Waals quickly identifies a private health care system as the immediate problem, but soon describes it more as a symptom of the larger disease of inequality. The income gap between rich and poor resembles that of “third-world” countries. The US has “a giant underclass” and a tiny overclass that allows the top 1% of income earners to capture as much wealth as the bottom 40% taken together. Leaving aside any arguments about the morality of such an asymmetrical income distribution pattern, societies constructed on such unstable bases are inherently fragile. Building more and more prisons may help maintain social control in the short run, but reliance on the legitimate use of force by the state to maintain order in the presence of unaccountable disparities in wealth and poverty is only a short-term solution to civic unrest.

De Waal concludes his book by hypothesizing a relationship between ourselves and our ancestors. He distinguishes between “hierarchy-enhancing” and “hierarchy-attenuating” personalities. The one is inclined to a “law and order” mentality, the other to a commitment to a “level playing field.” We clearly possess some of each. We are the most dangerous species on our planet; at the same time, we seem to possess “wells of empathy and love deeper than ever seen before.” Our biological inheritance is plainly more complicated than the advocates of innate aggression claim, but the oversimplifications of biological reductionism do not automatically give way to the parallel cultural assumptions of the blank slate. Instead, according to de Waal, we share not one but two inner apes. To give us some hope for the future, he cites a report from a French circus in which a bonobo male with a characteristically “insatiable sex drive” was mated with some female chimps. The progeny (“bonanzees” or “chimpabos”?) “walk upright and strike everyone with their gentility and sensitivity.” Now, if only they can be prevented from eating from the tree of knowledge, we might have something here.

Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at <>.


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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2006 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology