Remembering Frans de Waal and the origins of war

Remembering Frans de Waal and the origins of war


John Horgan writes:

I was scrolling through Twitter last night when I came across an RIP for primatologist Frans de Waal. The news caught me off guard. How could de Waal be dead? He was just out there promoting Different: Gender Through the Eyes of a Primatologist, the latest of his 16 popular books. But a release from Emory University, de Waal’s long-time academic home, confirmed that he succumbed to stomach cancer on March 14.

I interviewed de Waal in 2007 while researching my book The End of War. At the time, high-profile scientists were promoting the notion that humans are genetically predisposed to war. As evidence, they cited the violence of our closest genetic relatives, chimpanzees. In his influential 1996 book Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence, anthropologist Richard Wrangham declared: “Chimpanzee-like violence preceded and paved the way for human war, making modern humans the dazed survivors of a continuous, five-million-year habit of lethal aggression.” This hypothesis, which I call the deep-roots theory of war, was embraced by public intellectuals like Steven Pinker and Francis Fukuyama.

I discussed the deep-roots theory with de Waal on June 12, 2007, at the Yerkes Primate Research Center in Georgia, which houses chimpanzees and monkeys. De Waal was tall with sandy-colored hair. He still spoke with a faint Dutch accent, although he left his native Holland in the 1980s. We chatted in a watchtower overlooking a yard where three male chimps and a dozen females lolled, lazily nitpicking and sniffing each other.

Against this backdrop, de Waal heatedly rejected the widespread belief in “some sort of blind aggressive drive that makes us go to war.” De Waal deplored the fact that this grim meme—promulgated a half century ago by the German biologist Konrad Lorenz and, before him, by Freud—was being touted once again by leading scientists.

The idea that primate violence stems from an “instinct” or “drive” reflects “an old way of thinking,” de Waal said, “that I don’t think fits the facts.” While not denying that chimpanzees can be violent—he has witnessed gruesome attacks himself—de Waal charged that anthropologist Richard Wrangham and others have promulgated a cartoonishly distorted picture of the species. [Continue reading…]

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