Elena Madison

Frans de Waal, Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans
and Other Animals. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1996.

What People Have to Learn from Apes and Monkeys


      1. Marilyn is trying to eat in peace, but Georgia's pestering
simply won't let her. So Marilyn goes to look outside and starts raising
a ruckus, whereupon Georgia, along with the rest, goes to see what the
fuss is all about. While their attention is diverted, Marilyn returns to
her eating--finally left in peace.

      2. Interesting? Perhaps not very. After all, people use
diversionary tactics all the time to get their way, knowing how others
will react. But Marilyn and Georgia aren't people. They're chimpanzees.
Whoa, deliberate deception by chimps! A little more interesting? Maybe,
but so what?

      3. For one thing, there seems to be more in common between the
behaviors and mental abilities of humans and apes than previously
thought. Is there anything useful to be learned from this, and from the
further study of likenesses and differences between the behaviors of
apes and humans? Let's see.

      4. Frans de Waal, the author of a book called Good Natured: The
Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals,1 is a
primatologist. He makes a living studying the habits, activities, and
social organizations of non-human primates, i.e., apes and monkeys. His
work helps us to better understand both the likenesses and differences
among the behaviors of humans, on the one hand, and chimpanzees,
gorillas, bonobos, and various kinds of macaques (a type of monkey), on
the other. By examining the likenesses and differences we can shed light
on the interplay of biology and culture--in particular, how each
contributes to human behavior, as well as how each is changed by human

      5. Culture and its evolution are social aspects of human behavior
that are invented by humans, or other animals, and are passed down from
generation to generation, as children learn from adults. Biology refers,
in part, to genetically enabled features of human nervous systems and
other anatomy and physiology, present at birth and changing throughout
the life of the individual, often as a result of what the individual
does. Biology is only partly the product, directly or indirectly, of
natural selection over hundreds of generations. I say "partly" because
what we do also contributes to our biological make-up. For example, our
health and body habitus are heavily affected by what we eat, how we
exercise, and our avoidance or contact with toxic substances and
conditions, though under certain social conditions these may not be a
matter of choice for millions of people.

      6. There are entire schools of (pseudo)scientists who maintain
that most, if not all, of our complex behaviors are biologically, by
which they mean genetically, determined. The main reason it is important
for us to know if any of our complex behaviors are biologically
determined is that this knowledge can help us to know which, if any,
features of present day capitalist society we have to accept and learn
to live with.

      7. The good news for the working class is that so far there is
overwhelming evidence from anthropology (the scientific study of
cultures throughout history and around the world) that virtually all, if
not absolutely all, complex behaviors are learned and cultural in
origin, even if enabled by biology. It follows that there are no complex
behaviors that we cannot change in general by changing our social
circumstances. Granted all humans, and indeed all animals, eat, for
example, because our biological make-up demands it for survival, but the
styles of eating and what we eat is as varied around the world as are
styles of dress, housing, and entertainment.