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Interview: Frans de Waal

Nov 1, 1999 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:24 AM


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The line between chimps and humans is looking blurry these days. First we thought that only humans use tools. Then we learned that chimps do too. More recently, primatologists found that chimps, like humans, have distinctive cultural habits that vary from group to group. Frans de Waal has spent years studying the complexities of chimp behavior as director of Yerkes' Living Links Center at Emory University in Atlanta.

What's the significance of the discovery of chimp culture? There's a long tradition in Western thought that humans are not shackled by biology, whereas animals are pure instinct machines. The chimpanzee story is telling us that animals may be a lot closer to us in this regard than we think.

So what does separate us from chimps or other animals? Chimps don't have language. Humans actively instruct others about how things should be done. Chimpanzees probably pick up cultural traditions by observation.

Can chimpanzees create art? There are beautiful examples of art done by chimpanzees in human care. Chimps also have a rain dance: They react to thunderous noises of rainfall by swaying around rhythmically, their hair standing on end. Some people have called this dance a superstition, in that the animals may think that they can stop the rain.

Are we doing enough to protect wild chimpanzees? The conservation situation is the worst it's been in a long time. In Borneo there have been big fires; in Uganda there are rebels who threaten chimp researchers. In Africa the biggest threat of all is the bush meat trade. People are shooting apes, snaring them, hacking them to death, and eating them.

Would you want to live in a chimp society? I'd prefer to live with humans. I think humans are marvels of conflict resolution and cooperation. Look at New York City, which has more than 7 million people living crowded together. I don't think you could put 7 million chimpanzees in a city and have anything decent going on.

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