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What presidential candidates — and the rest of us — can learn from chimps

When pundits urged Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in February to be more feminine — to wear skirts and flashier makeup — Frans B.M. de Waal looked, as usual, to the chimpanzees outside his window at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta.

The pundits were wrong, de Waal wrote in the March 1 issue of New Scientist. To claim the considerable power of an alpha female, Clinton needed to present herself as older, as the leader of a large block of other women and as an effective bridge builder. In short, she needed to come off as more of an Indira Gandhi than a Paris Hilton in her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

It was a classic example of de Waal’s work over the years to further understanding of human culture and behavior by drawing lessons from apes. His acclaimed books — “Our Inner Ape, The Ape and the Sushi Master” and others — have mesmerized readers with profound insights into power, sex, kindness and violence.

Now de Waal is bringing a fresh take on those insights to Minnesota. Next week he will begin a 10-day stint as the Rydell scholar in residence at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter.

Two public lectures are part of the program. The first is “On the Possibility of Animal Empathy,” at 7 p.m. April 3 in Wallenberg Auditorium in the Alfred Nobel Hall of Science at Gustavus. The second is “Our Inner Ape: Human Nature as Seen by a Primatologist” at 7 p.m. April 8 at the Great Clips IMAX Theater at the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley. Both are free, but it would be a good idea to reserve seats for the zoo lecture at

Engaging non-scientists

Long recognized as a pre-eminent scientist, de Waal was named in 2007 to Time magazine’s list of the 100 men and women whose power, talent, or moral example is transforming the world.

But he’s given every reason to expect he will deftly engage non-scientists in his lectures.  On Comedy Central in January, de Waal mixed clear science with a straight-but-droll delivery. “The only reason we biologists don’t call humans apes is to protect the fragile human ego,” de Waal told Stephen Colbert on “The Colbert Report.”
Years ago, protestors confronted de Waal over his human-ape comparisons, but that has subsided, he said in a telephone interview on Wednesday .

“There may be creationists out there who hate what I say,” he said. “But I never run into them. I think it’s because they won’t come to my kind of lectures.”

The Minnesota talks will build on material de Waal has presented in his books, including the inner-ape central message. De Waal explained it this way on an Emory website:

“When people do evil things, such as when they commit genocides in Bosnia or Rwanda, we call them ‘animals.’ If people do altruistic things, such as when they save another’s life or give generously to the poor, we attribute this to our noble human morality. We call them ‘humane.’

Both sides of human nature, however, are tied to our biology. This theme of the duality of human nature, hovering between beast and angel, is brought home in “Our Inner Ape” by looking at our two closest animal relatives, the chimpanzee and the bonobo. The chimpanzee has a reputation as murderous and power-hungry, whereas the bonobo, the hippie of the primate world, seems to prefer to ‘make love – not war.'”

Elephant experiment
On the topic of animal empathy, de Waal is just back from Thailand where he and colleagues are working on breakthrough studies of elephants displaying surprising capacity for empathy.

Almost everyone is familiar with stories about dolphins saving humans from drowning or shark attacks. Chimps also can put themselves in the shoes (or padded feet) of others.

The latest focus is elephants.  In one experiment, a team from Emory University made an X mark on each elephant’s head in a spot where the animal could not see it without the help of a mirror. When confronted with a mirror, some elephants touched the marks with their trunks.

The finding is significant, de Waal said, because “in order to take empathy, you need a stronger sense of self.”

Human children develop that self-identity after they are about 18 months old, he said.

“Very few animals can do that — just apes, dolphins and now the elephants,” he said.

Dutch born, de Waal currently is C. H. Candler Professor in the Psychology Department of Emory University as well as the director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes research facility. From 1981 to 1991 he conducted research at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center in Madison.

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