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

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