The foam machine sputters and the bass bumps as the primates go out for their nightly romp. The two on the left look as if they’ve melted into one spasmodic being, banging their bodies against each other as if they’re trying to spark a fire.
They’re the bonobos.
The two on the right hoot up and down and stick out their paws as the guy in charge of the peppermint schnapps shots dishes out his wares.
They’re the chimps.
On college campuses across the country, students imitate their ape counterparts nightly, a scene surprising only in its regularity. It could be the ranch party at Kappa Alpha or the toga party at Chi Phi. On this night, it’s the foam party at Phi Delt. But the location or the theme — even one involving suds — is irrelevant.
These bonobos, these chimps, these great apes cloaked in their Burberry and Gucci, are unleashing their inner primate — LSATs, MCATs and GPAs be damned.
Frans de Waal hasn’t been to a Fraternity Row party. But he knows the scene. De Waal has devoted his life to studying great apes, a group of primates with DNA 98.5 percent identical to that of humans. In doing so, he has revolutionized the world of primatology and uncovered the building blocks of human behavior. This is in addition to authoring multiple bestselling books, earning a ranking as one of TIME
Magazine’s 100 People Who Shape Our World and indulging in a passion for photography that has earned him considerable acclaim. He also cooks a mean Indian curry, according to his wife.
Now de Waal is embarking on his most daunting challenge yet. He wants to take what he’s learned about great apes and apply it to a problem that has perplexed philosophers for centuries.
Frans de Waal wants to reveal the secret to building the perfect society.
It’s 1966. Barely 40 years in the past, it feels more like eons ago. The United States still hasn’t recovered from President Kennedy’s assassination and still hasn’t realized that the Vietnam War is a fiasco. A B-movie actor by the name of Ronald Reagan is elected governor of California and a cartoon kingpin by the name of Walt Disney dies in Los Angeles.
John Lennon declares that the Beatles are bigger than Jesus and few fans disagree. Personal computers, cell phones and suicide bombers aren’t even on the horizon.
And in a small town in the Netherlands, 18-year-old Frans de Waal is deciding on a career.
The de Waal you see then isn’t all that different from the de Waal you see now. The hair is jet black instead of salt and pepper grey. The trademark mustache hasn’t yet taken hold of his upper lip. But the understated smile and the piercing green eyes — always observing, always recording — are instantly recognizable.
There’s one other thing that hasn’t changed: the passion for animals. As an adolescent, de Waal bred mice, studied birds and oversaw an aquatic zoo filled with fish and eels.
To keep the zoo full, he went to unusual lengths. Back then, houses were heated by coal, which was filtered through a sieve. At the de Waal household, the coal sieve doubled as a fishing net. On weekends, de Waal would head over to the nearest lake and fill up his net. Imagine “The Andy Griffith Show,” in Dutch.
But de Waal’s desire to work with animals began to slip away. The culprit? His high school biology teacher, of all people. In de Waal’s opinion, there wasn’t an unhappier soul in northern Europe.
The teacher was obsessed with an arcane chemical reaction, refusing to teach anything else. Needless to say, formulas that looked as if they had been written in another language didn’t capture de Waal’s imagination.
But it wasn’t just the biology teacher. De Waal loved art as much as animals and even showed promise as a painter. The Dutch school system, in which universities were more like trade schools, meant that de Waal’s decision would have an air of finality.
A lot to put on an 18-year-old’s shoulders.
The Yerkes Migration
About a year before de Waal had to make his decision, an unusual ritual developed in Orange Park, Fla. Every night for a month, a moving van arrived at the sleepy panhandle town of 10,000 at around 6:30 p.m., made the 12-hour drive to Emory University, and then did the whole thing again the next night.
The moving van’s cargo was shrouded in secrecy. But one night, at a rest station in the middle of south Georgia, the secret got out. As the van’s drivers grabbed a bite to eat, a strange sound emanated from the van. The people filling up their cars and pick-ups moved closer. It can’t be, they thought. It couldn’t. But the sound was unmistakable: a chimp was hooting.
As they would later read in The Atlanta Constitution
, there were actually about 20 chimps in the van, along with one or two monkeys. Emory was in the process of moving 300 great apes and monkeys to its new facilities in the Atlanta area. Or, as an Emory press release dryly noted, “Market value of the animals to be transferred is estimated at close to a quarter of a million dollars.”
The Yerkes Primate Center’s Orange Park facility started as a place for Yale University scientists to study primates 30 years earlier. As Donald Dewsbury writes in Monkey Farm
, his comprehensive history of the early days of Yerkes, “On the surface, June 1930 was a terrible time to begin a new enterprise. It had been less than a year since the American stock market had collapsed and a worldwide financial crisis was raging. Jobs were lost and cutbacks were everywhere. Nevertheless, that was the time that Yale University’s Robert Mearns Yerkes, undaunted by all that surrounded him, was finally able to bring to fruition a dream and a plan on which he had worked for many years: a remote facility for the study of chimpanzees. Local residents, not well versed in the taxonomy of primates, would call it the ‘monkey farm.’”
The Center had gained national acclaim in its short existence. But in 1965, after Yerkes’ death, Yale was ready to sell the Center. Emory purchased the facility for $1, according to Yerkes lore. The main facility is now located at the end of Gatewood Road, 30 seconds past Woodruff Residential Center. (Today, a health-food store and day spa — proudly offering bikini waxes and facial-hair removals — has sprung up on the old facilities in Orange Park. Rumor has it, if you drive by the Center’s old facilities on Halloween, you’ll hear the ghosts of the old chimps shrieking. Presumably, the hair removal has something to do with it.)
No one knew at the time that the move from Orange Park to Atlanta put Yerkes Primate Center on a collision course with a would-be primatologist an ocean away.
The Making of a Primatologist
Sitting on the stool at Arnhem Zoo in the Netherlands that he would occupy five days a week for six straight years, Frans de Waal wondered, in so many words, why the hell he chose primatology.
Later, when de Waal is famous, people will come up to him at booksignings and tell him how they would love to do his job. De Waal is always polite with these people. But he also thinks have no idea what they’re talking about.
De Waal’s books — the glamorous part of his job — are the byproduct of thousands of hours of tedious work. When he’s not writing about his observations, he’s taking detailed notes or coding hours of videotape.
At Arnhem, de Waal’s job was to sit on a tower overlooking an island enclave of 25 chimps and record what he saw. Eventually, a Machiavellian soap opera would unfold, with chimps jockeying for power. But at first it seemed to de Waal as if the chimps did little but groom each other and eat. He might as well have been watching the laundry dry.
This was worse than being a starving artist. De Waal had become a bored biologist. College hadn’t been much of an improvement over high school biology. The only time de Waal interacted with animals was when they were already dead — dissections took up a lot of his time. To someone so creative, taking apart an animal’s body held the appeal of, well, taking apart an animal’s body.
After four years of frustration, de Waal found a job at a psychology laboratory, performing cognitive tests on chimps. Animal anatomy hadn’t interested de Waal, but the primate mind captured his imagination. Here was an animal that, if not for a few stray strands of DNA, would be identical to humans. What makes primates tick? de Waal wondered. And what can they teach us about ourselves? Frans de Waal had finally found his animal match, the species he would study for the next 35 years. At about the same time, he would also find his human counterpart.
One day, as de Waal entered his living room, he stopped dead in his tracks. Now 22, de Waal could rattle off every detail of the room, from the design of the couch to the shape of the lamps. This was, after all, where he grew up, the room he walked through after filling his makeshift fishing net or observing his makeshift aquatic zoo. But usually, there wasn’t a mesmerizing girl with an exotic French accent standing there.
Love at first sight is a cliché, unless you’re the one experiencing it. Lucky for de Waal, the object of his instantaneous affection felt the same way. Luckier still was the fact that she was standing there at all.
Of the 50 million people in France at the time, de Waal’s older brother had become pen pals with Catherine Marin. On a trip to Netherlands with her father, Marin wanted to put a face to the handwriting. She didn’t expect to meet her future husband.
Four decades later, Marin remembers the moment vividly: “My first impression was that he was attractive physically. But as soon as we got the chance to speak, I saw that he was extremely smart, very funny and very creative. He was sure of himself, but not arrogant — he always focused on the positive. For all the years we’ve been together, I would say it’s the strongest part of his personality.”
Although they had to overcome different backgrounds and a language barrier, they would soon be inseparable. This was fortunate for de Waal. Without Marin, he may never have developed into a world-class primatologist.
Marin provided an outlet for de Waal’s creativity, which was sometimes stifled as a scientist. Both were interested in photography — Marin would make it a profession — and spent hours together in the darkroom experimenting with different composition techniques.
It was here that de Waal developed his fondness for black and white photography. Marin also encouraged Frans to draw, paint and pursue his love of music. De Waal, whose music tastes range from Bach to the Beatles, even tried his hand at composing.
It was also fortunate for de Waal, who would soon try to capture his experiences at Arnhem in a book, that Marin’s love for the written word equaled her passion for photography. She was — and is — de Waal’s first editor. Receiving 10 pages of his book at a time, Marin tries to react like the general reader. When something is too technical, she tells de Waal to say it more simply. When something is exciting, she urges him to expand on the anecdote.
Soon Marin would have her work cut out for her. De Waal had decided to write a book challenging the fundamental beliefs of many of his peers.
The Move to America
"At least we’re used to the cold," Marin thought.
Wisconsin would seem like a foreign country to many people from the United States. To someone from Europe, it might as well have been Mars.
The story of how de Waal and Marin ended up in the Badger State is almost as improbable as the story of how they met. As a graduate student, de Waal gave a speech describing post-aggression behavior in chimps. De Waal has always been an engaging speaker — his understated humor livens up even the most technical talk — and Robert Goy, the director of the Wisconsin Primate Center, took notice.
De Waal’s non-traditional research scared off some of his colleagues. But Goy was a bit of a rebel himself — his research on the origins of sexual behavior attracted its fair share of controversy.
So Goy made de Waal a daring proposition: Drop everything and come work for him in Wisconsin.
De Waal was hesitant. He had never been to the United States. Besides, Goy hadn’t even offered him a permanent job, only guaranteeing de Waal employment for a year.
But then de Waal thought: A year is better than nothing. Primatology jobs in Europe were so scarce that a career as a starving artist didn’t look so bad anymore. And, as Marin noted, even the infrequent sunshine of Wisconsin was a welcome change from the daily forecast for dreariness in the Netherlands.
Still, de Waal had developed some semblance of a reputation in Europe. In America, he would be starting all over again.
“When you come to a different country, you have no network. It’s not easy to be recognized nationwide by your profession or by the general public,” Marin says.
Despite the challenges, the move to the United States was the final key to de Waal’s success. The Wisconsin Primate Center was — and still is — known for its library devoted to books about primatology. De Waal devoured the library’s contents, polishing off a primate education that was a decade in the making.
But it wasn’t just the books. American culture was a revelation to de Waal in itself. “Things were much more conservative than what I was used to,” de Waal says. “Especially the hate-love relationship with sex. American society is very interested in sex, but also extremely nervous about it. For example, when Janet Jackson shows a little piece of breast, the country goes crazy. For a European, that’s hard to understand. We would barely notice that something like that happened.”
The differences between Americans and Europeans helped illuminate the complexity of the human psyche. When he would later turn his attention to human nature, this insight would prove invaluable.
On the first page of his first book, written in his first few years at Wisconsin, Frans de Waal lays out what may very well be the impetus for his entire career: “Visitors to a zoo always appear amused by the sight of chimpanzees. No other animal attracts so much laughter. Why should this be? Are they really such clowns, or does their appearance make them ridiculous? It is almost certainly their looks that amuse us, because they need do little more than walk around or sit down to make us laugh. The hilarity is perhaps a camouflage for quite different feelings — a nervous reaction caused by the marked resemblance between humans and chimpanzees. It is said that apes hold up a mirror to us, but we seem to find it hard to remain serious when confronted with the image we see reflected.”
Starting with this paragraph, and continuing for the next 200 pages, what originally had been a pencil-on-paper manuscript written in Dutch turned the primatology world on its head.
It’s hard to understand today how revolutionary Chimpanzee Politics
was. The book mostly dealt with the political interactions of a colony of chimps de Waal studied at Arnhem. But in doing so, it implicitly argued that humans and chimps are one and the same.
In the United States, a country where a large portion of the population still believes evolution is a myth, this could easily be construed as heresy. Even de Waal’s advisor urged him to tone down the conclusions in the book. But de Waal decided to take a chance.
“Probably because I was very young, I decided to heck with it, I’ll just write it the way I want to write it. I’ve seen these animals for six years, and I know what I’m talking about,” de Waal says. “So when book came out, funny enough, I think many primatologists had been thinking along the same lines, so immediate peers were not objecting at all … Basically it fell on receptive ears mostly, which is not exactly what I had predicted. I had hoped, of course, but not predicted it necessarily.”
Two of those receptive ears belonged to Newt Gingrich. The conservative politician, who is also an Emory alum, would seem like the least likely proponent of a book that flies in the face of creationism. But in an irony that still amuses de Waal, Gingrich championed the book — on the floor of Congress, no less. In fact, Gingrich’s high-profile praise of the book may have been the principal reason for its success. Either way, this may rate as the most unique use of the Emory alumni network yet.
(A side note: When de Waal met Jimmy Carter for the first time, the former president expressed his admiration for another de Waal tome, Peacemaking Among Primates
. This amused de Waal. “I always thought [Gingrich and Carter] read the wrong books,” he jokes.)
For Chimpanzee Politics
, timing was everything. Ten years earlier, the book would have been considered too radical. Ten years later, it would be old news. But a growing number of primatologists were realizing that primates were more than instinct machines.
De Waal’s logic was so unassailable and his writing was so clear that even the Newt Gringrichs of the world had to nod their heads in agreement.
Chimpanzee Politics Today
A quarter-century later, a well-worn copy of Chimpanzee Politics
rests next to Emory senior Emily Curren. Curren is blonde, petite and as comfortable at a dance club as an Emory Pre-Veterinarian Society meeting, where she’s the secretary.
The origin of Curren’s love for animals is typical: When she turned five, her parents got her a puppy. “Except for me, it wasn’t just a phase,” Curren says. “I never grew out of wanting to work with animals.”
So when Curren turned 15, her uncle knew exactly what to buy her: Chimpanzee Politics
Curren couldn’t put the book down. She had always sensed that animals were more like humans than people gave them credit for. De Waal simply put her instincts to words. Her interest piqued, Curren did what any young scientist would: She studied de Waal.
Reading everything about him she could get her hands on, she discovered he worked at Emory University. She had never heard of Emory. But when her parents told her it was a good school, she put it at the top of her list. In May, she will graduate with a degree in biology, with her sights set on becoming a veterinarian.
Curren is an exception. Few students have heard of de Waal, let alone chosen to go to Emory because of his presence. But Curren’s fascination with de Waal’s work demonstrates why the primatologist’s decision to come to Yerkes was so important for Emory.
De Waal and Marin loved living in Wisconsin, but de Waal missed working with great apes. So in the early 1990s, de Waal and Marin made the move to Yerkes. At the time, it was a tough decision. Now Marin says they couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
“After the move, we thought, ‘My gosh, how could we even hesitate one minute?’” she says.
In many ways, de Waal became the face of modern-day Yerkes as soon as he stepped onto campus. In the past, Yerkes had an aura of secrecy surrounding it that led people to assume the worst.
Under the guidance of current director Stuart Zola, Yerkes has stepped up its public outreach, working to change this perception. Zola stresses accessibility, and there are few people on staff more available to the public than de Waal.
This inspires people, such as Curren. As she talks about de Waal, Curren picks up Chimpanzee Politics
and reads her favorite passage: “It is not only visitors to the zoo who are fascinated but uneasy in the presence of chimpanzees; the same is true of scientists. The more they learn about these great apes, the deeper our identity crisis seems to become. The resemblance between humans and chimpanzees is not only external. If we look straight and deep into a chimpanzee’s eyes, an intelligent, self-assured personality looks back at us. If they are animals, what must we be?”
Curren looks up from the book. “I think that’s incredible and that says it all right there,” she says. “How can we deny evolution? We’re really not as great as we think we are. We’re animals.”
Since Chimpanzee Politics
, Frans de Waal has authored 11 books, almost all of which have been met with critical and popular success. In these books, his observations of humans have become almost as important as his observations of primates. In Our Inner Ape
(2005), for example, de Waal makes an explicit connection between humans and primates for the first time.
The personal accolades have also poured in. De Waal has been elected to the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences and the National Academy Sciences, two of the most important societies in science. This summer, TIME
named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
But all of these accomplishments may be overshadowed by his next project.
De Waal opens Chimpanzee Politics
with the following quote from Thomas Hobbes: “I put for a generall inclination of all mankind, a perpetuall and restlesse desire of Power after power, that ceaseth onely in Death.”
It’s fitting that a man who has walked the line between philosophy and science his entire career opens his first book with a quote from the founding father of modern political theory.
But it turns out, de Waal may have used the quote 25 years too early. Hobbes was so obsessed with building a better society, that he devoted an entire book, Leviathan
, to the task. Leviathan
is one of the most influential books on political theory ever, but it’s puzzling that the entire book rests on a shaky premise: Hobbes’ unscientific belief that human nature requires men to be in a constant state of war against each other.
What if Hobbes’ conception of human nature is wrong? This is where de Waal comes in. De Waal believes that by observing primates, he can come up with a scientific conception of human nature. Armed with this knowledge, he believes he can reveal the blueprint to building a perfect society.
“Thinking about human nature is prominent in many political ideologies, because every ideology likes to claim that it relates to human nature, that it’s somehow natural to design a society this way or that way,” de Waal says. “We biologists usually stay out of these debates, but these arguments make extensive use of biology, so I feel we should be more involved. I’m very interested in the connection between primatology and human society.”
As he speaks, de Waal exudes the same quiet confidence Catherine Marin noticed the first day she set eyes on him. Even the most devoted de Waal disciples may have trouble believing that the famed primatologist can solve a problem that has plagued philosophers for centuries. But as Marin has learned, the last thing you should do is doubt de Waal.
“There are two kinds of scientists,” Marin says. “Most scientists are not creative. They can still be good scientists, but what they’re doing is taking well-known ideas and deepening them, working on them more. That’s good. But then there’s the other kind of scientist, the one who can create a new field, or pioneer a new way of thinking. Frans is a creative scientist. There aren’t many of those."
— Contact Magazine Editor Steven Stein at firstname.lastname@example.org