The animal in us, the human in them

Jeff Warren in The Globe and Mail:

Dewaal_259508gm-a The book of nature is like the Bible: Everyone reads into it what they want.” So writes eminent primatologist Frans de Waal about a third of the way into his latest, The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society. As nature readers go, de Waal is among the most accomplished. He has spent the better part of 30 years studying chimpanzees and bonobos, sometimes in the wild, but mostly in his capacity as director of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, Ga.

And what a sobering education the apes have given him. For six books, de Waal has chronicled their scheming and their turf battles, their amazing problem-solving abilities and sexual politics. From the start, it has been clear to de Waal that the apes represent a kind of proto-human society, with many of our same patterns and preoccupations. These days, there is nothing controversial about this view; it's trotted out by pundits and newspaper columnists at every opportunity, all of them enthralled by evolutionary psychology – the idea that all of human nature can be explained by adaptive responses formed on the prehistoric savannah – as a kind of arch-explanatory paradigm. If we want to understand ourselves, the thinking goes, then look to our ape ancestors, who exhibit many of the same traits in more elemental form.

De Waal is very much with this program, and he is an astute enough cultural commentator to recognize how the specific details of this narrative influence politics and society.

More here.