Frans B. M. de Waal
Election Year: 2004
Primary Section: 51, Anthropology
Secondary Section: 27, Evolutionary Biology
Membership Type: Member
My research on the social life of monkeys and apes was initially purely observational, following the long-standing Dutch ethological tradition. I would watch the spontaneous behavior of primates for thousands of hours, collecting systematic information on the way they treat each other. In those days, in the 1970s, the main interest of many scholars was aggressive behavior, but soon I discovered that what happens after conflict is at least as important. Chimpanzees, for example, reconcile with a kiss and embrace after a fight. This led to research on conflict-resolution, expressions of empathy, cooperation, and ultimately the foundations of human morality. In pursuing this interest, I have studied many captive populations of primates, from macaques and capuchins to bonobos and chimpanzees, always with a strong comparative component, including parallels with human behavior. Lately, my team has become more experimental in its approach. We explore the same social issues by exposing primates to tightly controlled situations in which we manipulate certain variables. Our main topics of research are cultural learning (learning from others, which may lead to intergroup differences in behavior known as "cultures") and behavioral economics, which addresses social reciprocity, fairness, food-sharing, and the anticipation of benefits.