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Franz de Waal

Vale Primatologist Franz de Waal, Friend of Bonobos (1948-2024)

This is something of a late obituary, but it is one that we should not forget to include on this website dedicated to important ideas that challenge the dominant paradigm: Franz de Waal, world-renowned primatologist and ethologist from the Netherlands, passed away on March 14th at the age of 75.

Why it is important to commemorate de Waal, is because his research helped to dispute the long-held assumption that we humans are evolutionarily predisposed to violence. People making such claims —and there is always a political intention underneath them— use chimpanzees as an example to justify them: chimps are one of our closest evolutionary relatives among extant primates (we are biologically more related to them than African elephants are to Asian elephants) so when researchers like Jane Goodall first documented examples of ‘tribal warfare’ among different groups of chimpanzees in the wild, this was interpreted by scientists as evidence that ‘war’ preceded the emergence of Homo Sapiens, and it is therefore a natural condition of our species.

Franz’s work concentrated instead on an overlooked type of primate: the bonobo. Contrary to what one would assume at first glance, bonobos are not a sub-species of chimpanzees but an entirely distinct species altogether, and we humans are as closely related to them as we are to chimps.

The reason bonobos had not been as widely studied as chimps is because they were something of an embarrassment to scientists. It is not a secret nowadays that these great apes’ primal activity (no pun intended) is sex. Bonobos will spend most of the hours of the day engaging in all sorts of non-reproductive fornication between partners of the opposite or same sex.

The result of all that unrestrained horniness is that bonobo societies are much more peaceful, relaxed, and friendly than their stressed-out chimpanzee cousins —bonobos, by the way, organize themselves around matriarchies, whereas chimpanzee bands are patriarchal.

In other words, chimpanzees engage in violence to get sex, whereas bonobos engage in sex to avoid violence.

Franz’s work, which expanded from studying (non-human) primates to social behavior and even gender role, demonstrates that if anger and violence are part of our biological heritage, then so too are empathy and compassion as shown by the behavior of bonobos, our closest biological relatives next to chimps. If we focus more on our darker impulses it is because it drives a certain political and economical agenda which has nothing to do with actual science; that is why back in the 19th century capitalists mistook Darwin’s work and used it to justify their “survival of the fittest” lack of compassion for the less fortunate. Incidentally, a similar thing happened with de Waal’s work when the term “alpha male” became popularized as a symbol of callous aggressiveness, when in fact it is the complete opposite.

“I sometimes try to imagine what would have happened if we’d known the bonobo first and the chimpanzee only later—or not at all. The discussion about human evolution might not revolve as much around violence, warfare and male dominance, but rather around sexuality, empathy, caring and cooperation. What a different intellectual landscape we would occupy!”

Rest in peace, Franz de Waal, who was not only a great scientist but also a pretty cool primate.

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