LJMU receives NW Region KTP award
11 February 2008
INCORE lecture, Professor Franz B M de Waal, 'Our Inner Ape: What Primate Behaviour Teaches Us About Cooperation'
Are you a lover or a fighter? How you answer may depend on whether you are more like a bonobo or a chimp, according to expert primatologist, Frans de Waal, who delivered LJMU’s first INCORE lecture on Tuesday 5 February.
Bonobos and chimps are the apes closest to humans in the evolutionary chain, and Frans de Waal, named one of the 100 most influential people alive by Time magazine, is at the forefront of the debate over which we most resemble.
This eminent speaker was introduced to a packed auditorium by his former research colleague, Filippo Aureli, LJMU's Professor of Animal Behaviour and Co-director of the Research Centre in Evolutionary Anthropology and Palaeoecology, who also outlined forthcoming lectures in the INCORE series.
Frans de Waal, Professor of Primate Behaviour from Emory University in Atlanta, began by dismissing the idea that humans are ''miles higher'' up the evolutionary ladder than primates. Instead, he said that uncanny similarities far outweigh the differences: "If an extraterrestrial were to visit earth, he would have a hard time seeing most of the differences that we treasure between ourselves and apes."
Professor de Waal first hit the headlines after publishing his groundbreaking book, Chimpanzee Politics, which documents the political upheavals of a chimp colony he observed while working at Arnhem Zoo in the Netherlands. His book showed how chimps plot and scheme against each other like 'Machiavellian' politicians. Unholy alliances are formed with older chimps, who are physically 'past-it', taking on the role of 'kingmaker', backing younger, fitter males who can depose more dominant males. When first published in 1982, Professor de Waal risked the scorn of the scientific community by giving human qualities to primates. However, the book was a huge popular success, so much so that Newt Gingrich, then Speaker of the US House of Representatives, put it on the recommended reading list for trainee Congressmen.
While most literature points to chimpanzees as our last ancestor, recent research indicates that we may share a 'social' gene with the bonobo ape that chimps do not possess. During his lecture, Professor de Waal highlighted that mankind could learn a lot from bonobo society, where unusually, females rule the roost.
Given such a matriarchal society, it is interesting that bonobos prefer sexual contact over violence and confrontation. If chimps can be called Machiavellian because of their politician-like scheming, then bonobos are their free-loving hedonistic hippy counterparts. "They have sex all the time," explains Professor de Waal, "to say hello, to prevent fights, whilst eating, after fights or to ease tensions as well as for pleasure, but it's very brief, much like our handshake."
More importantly, Professor de Waal claims that they are capable of sensitivity, kindness, and altruism. Although bonobo society is not without conflict, the apes are keener to adopt a "sex for peace" method of resolving disputes.
Professor de Waal labels humans "the most bi-polar ape", because he believes that we far outstrip chimps with our level of violence, though we are also capable of outdoing the bonobo in our love and empathy. "Literature over the last 30 years has been extremely bleak and cynical about the human species," he says, "that we are selfish, we are nasty, and that competition drives all of us and drives all the other species."
While conceding that competition plays a ruthless but important part in natural selection, Professor de Waal believes that it has produced more positive behaviour, including kindness and cooperation. That's why he prefers to concentrate his work on the things that bring us together, such as empathy, and peace-making.
Perhaps those who would point to our more violent evolutionary ancestors and say "it's in our nature" to excuse war and destruction would do well to take a lesson in conflict resolution from the bonobo ape.
- Professor Filippo Aureli will be giving his Inaugural Professorial Lecture at 4.45pm on Wednesday 20 February 2008. The lecture, entitled 'Aggression and Conflict Management: Lessons from Monkeys and Apes' will take place in the Ground Floor Lecture Theatre of the Cherie Booth Building, Byrom Street.