Wetenschap - 13 juni 2013

Looking at monkeys in Orion

How can a scientist follow in the footsteps of the world's most famous primatologist?


Foto: .

The Jong College, a group of young and ambitious researchers, has invited the Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal to talk about his newest book, The Bonobo and the Atheist. The Jong College wants to instil a more stimulating academic climate in Wageningen. Its memĀ­bers probably also want an answer to the question: how can they ape the success of the man who was proclaimed by Time in 2007 to be one of the hundred most influential world citizens? Three tips from De Waal's newest book.
 Talk tohe general public
If there was no book, people would not be able to read it and get to know you. An approachable writing style has certainly helped De Waal to gain attention for his ideas. After spending six years working in the field at the Arnhem zoo, he wrote his first book, Chimpanzee Politics. In it, he explains how chimpanzees fight among themselves for power. This was followed by eight other books, countless articles, popular appearances and a TED talk about bonobos, our similarity to apes and the basis of morality.
Set up your experiments with care
Since an experiment can cost a primatologist an entire year, De Waal leaves nothing to chance. In The Bonobo and the Atheist, he explains that his researchers' proposals are refined endlessly until the most elegant experiment emerges. As an example, he cites the test which proved that chimpanzees - like humans - are not entirely egoistic but are in fact generous. Earlier experiments using a complex instrument could not find any traces of generosity. His test was in fact very simple: apes had to choose a disk. If they chose a red one, only that ape was given a piece of banana. If a green disk had been chosen, his partner also got a bite. An egoistic ape would be equally likely to choose either disk, as he would be rewarded in all cases. In reality, they picked the 'generous' option far more often.
Dare to go against the flow
From the late seventies onward, De Waal studied the behaviour of apes such as chimpanzees. Contrary to received opinion, he did not see them as killer apes that are egoistic and amoral. Naturally, chimpanzees are competitive and aggressive, but they also have empathy, settle conflicts and detest injustice. Human characteristics are an extension of these qualities. But most scientists used to think that natural selection always brings about an egoistic result. In the eighties and nineties, De Waal sometimes felt like a 'toilet frog', he writes. This Australian frog nestles in toilet bowls and submissively lets everything fall on him. De Waal continued steadfastly with his research and after 2000, general opinion made a complete turnabout. Therefore, have confidence in your own conclusions.

The Bonobo and the Atheist, Frans de Waal
Wednesday 26 June, 16.00-17.30.
Grote Zaal, Orion (103)
Free admission