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9/16/09

Survival of The Kindest


In Good Natured (1996) Frans de Waal provides an account of an old male bonobo leading a blind female around by the hand, and another of an ape who helped an injured bird by climbing a tree, spreading the bird's wings, and sending it off into the air. The primate somehow knew the kind of help the bird needed. Throughout the world of primates, observers have noted how apes reveal a capacity to assist others insightfully.

De Waal studied the field work of researchers, and the "veneer theory" of people such as Jane Goodall, who held that apes and humans share an innate tendency toward agression and violence. In human society this tendency is veiled by the veneer of civilization. Instead, he finds, and argues for, a wide range of ape behavior, from agression to tenderness and explores what this might mean in human society.

"When a bird flew into the glass enclosure of a bonobo named Kuni, de Waal recounts, she picked it up and tried to help it fly away again. Rather than comforting the starling like a fellow ape, Kuni carried it to the top of a tree, carefully spread its wings, and launched it gently into the air, showing that she recognized its needs as distinct from her own--a remarkable act of empathy. Humans show the same inclination when they help strangers without regard to their own reward, such as stopping to assist accident victims or giving away money to people they have never met."

“I think our motivations often transcend the reason why a behavior evolved,” de Waal says. “Acts of helping may have originally evolved in context for their survival value, but are now applied to situations outside that.”

Notice the words "transcend" and "evolved" above. He refers to transcending evolution. Here, de Waal implies a position against the reductionist explanations of evolutionary psychology, which see behavior as a means to perpetuate individual genes. A catch-phrase of reductionism can be found in Richard Dawkins' concept of "the selfish gene."

In Our Inner Ape, de Waal has a section, “Girl Power,” in which he "describes how females run the show in bonobo communities, controlling the food supply and wielding considerable authority over relationships and mating. Even the male bonobo hierarchy, de Waal says, is actually determined by the influence of the mothers." More

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