The distinguished primatologist reveals his thoughts on the contradictory nature of humans.

podium.jpg Jon Rou, Emory University Photo

As the U.S. grapples with Intelligent Design, I can’t help thinking about the greatest design flaw of all: that an obviously aggressive primate has been equipped with a brain large enough to develop ghastly weapons. That wasn’t the smartest of schemes. But then, the human species is also endowed with ways to hold aggression in check and to empathize, even with its enemies. If anything, we are walking contradictions.

The empathy part intrigues me. I presume it is an ancient capacity, rooted in mammalian parental care. It is also the most understudied topic in the world. Students of animal behavior are told to be circumspect about emotions: better have those rats press levers than to try to figure what they might feel. But why do chimpanzees put an arm around an injured peer? And why did Kuni, a bonobo at a British zoo, rescue a stunned bird that had fallen into her enclosure? When Kuni found the injured starling, she climbed a nearby tree with the bird in hand, and carefully unfolded its wings before sending it out like a little airplane. She tailored her assistance to the needs of an animal totally unlike herself, an act of imagination often assumed to be uniquely human.

The possibility that empathy is part of our primate heritage ought to please us, but we are not in the habit of embracing our nature. When people kill each other, we call them “animals,” but when they give to the poor, we praise them for being “humane.” The idea that our animal background is all bad is one of the reasons a country well-known for its optimism refuses to embrace Darwinism. Yet it will be hard to identify anything we like about ourselves that is not part of our evolutionary background. What we need is a vision of human nature that encompasses all of our tendencies: the good, the bad and the ugly. De Waal is the C. H. Candler Professor of Primate Behavior at Emory University. His book is Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are (October, Riverhead Books).

Originally published February 22, 2006


Share this Stumbleupon Reddit Email + More


  • Ideas

    I Tried Almost Everything Else

    John Rinn, snowboarder, skateboarder, and “genomic origamist,” on why we should dumpster-dive in our genomes and the inspiration of a middle-distance runner.

  • Ideas

    Going, Going, Gone

    The second most common element in the universe is increasingly rare on Earth—except, for now, in America.

  • Ideas

    Earth-like Planets Aren’t Rare

    Renowned planetary scientist James Kasting on the odds of finding another Earth-like planet and the power of science fiction.

The Seed Salon

Video: conversations with leading scientists and thinkers on fundamental issues and ideas at the edge of science and culture.

Are We Beyond the Two Cultures?

Video: Seed revisits the questions C.P. Snow raised about science and the humanities 50 years by asking six great thinkers, Where are we now?

Saved by Science

Audio slideshow: Justine Cooper's large-format photographs of the collections behind the walls of the American Museum of Natural History.

The Universe in 2009

In 2009, we are celebrating curiosity and creativity with a dynamic look at the very best ideas that give us reason for optimism.

Revolutionary Minds
The Interpreters

In this installment of Revolutionary Minds, five people who use the new tools of science to educate, illuminate, and engage.

The Seed Design Series

Leading scientists, designers, and architects on ideas like the personal genome, brain visualization, generative architecture, and collective design.

The Seed State of Science

Seed examines the radical changes within science itself by assessing the evolving role of scientists and the shifting dimensions of scientific practice.

A Place for Science

On the trail of the haunts, homes, and posts of knowledge, from the laboratory to the field.


Witness the science. Stunning photographic portfolios from the pages of Seed magazine.

SEEDMAGAZINE.COM by Seed Media Group. ©2005-2015 Seed Media Group LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Sites by Seed Media Group: Seed Media Group | ScienceBlogs | Research Blogging | SEEDMAGAZINE.COM