Talking points: gender, gender equality, alpha males, alpha females, violence, culture, psychology

I’ve been following Frans’ work for a while, and have admired how dedicated he is to his work and to uncovering the complexity of primates. This was such an enjoyable and fascinating conversation!

This episode is a compelling look at just how complex and nuanced something like gender can be, from one of THE world’s top primatologists. With more and more pressure to outsource your opinions, your arguments, and your beliefs to the fastest talking pundit, it’s more important than ever to take a step back, breathe, and check the science.

Dr. Frans B. M. de Waal is a Dutch/American biologist and primatologist known for his work on the behavior and social intelligence of primates. His first book, Chimpanzee Politics (1982) compared the schmoozing and scheming of chimpanzees involved in power struggles with that of human politicians. Ever since, de Waal has drawn parallels between primate and human behavior, from peacemaking and morality to culture. His scientific work has been published in hundreds of technical articles in journals such as Science, Nature, Scientific American, and outlets specialized in animal behavior. His popular books — translated into twenty languages — have made him one of the world’s most visible primatologists. His latest books are The Age of Empathy (2009), and The Bonobo and the Atheist (2013). Two recent edited volumes are The Primate Mind (2012) and Evolved Morality (2014).

De Waal is C. H. Candler Professor in the Psychology Department of Emory University and Director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, in Atlanta, Georgia. Since 2013, he is a Distinguished Professor (Universiteitshoogleraar) at Utrecht University. He has been elected to the (US) National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences. In 2007, he was selected by Time as one of The Worlds’ 100 Most Influential People Today, and in 2011 by Discover as among 47 (all time) Great Minds of Science. Being editor-in-chief of the journal Behaviour, de Waal has stepped in the footsteps of Niko Tinbergen, one of the founders of ethology.

His latest research concerns empathy and cooperation, inequity aversion and social cognition in chimpanzees, bonobos, and other species. He and his students have pioneered studies on how behavior is culturally transmitted in the primates, whether elephants recognize themselves in mirrors, how primates react to unequal reward divisions, how well primates spontaneously cooperate, and whether bonobo orphans are as emotionally affected by their trauma as human orphans.


00:02:22 What is a primatologist, and how Frans’ early work surprised everyone, including himself 

00:08:58 Why research gender in primates?

00:012:23 You can’t draw lines on gender, the biology of sex and gender differences, and examples in other animals

00:19:39 Why do we want to see ourselves in primate culture?

00:24:25 Female sexuality has been historically downplayed 

00:31:40 Do you feel your work on primates gets politicized?

00:38:16 Are males naturally more dominant, and what is an alpha male really?

00:46:23 Is there a time and place for physical dominance, and the effect of older males on younger males

00:52:51 Are males more hierarchical than females in primate culture?

01:02:56 The misconceptions around violence in primates

01:06:49 Will learning more about biology lead to gender equality?

01:12:54 Final thoughts; we should look at gender as a complex story

Connect with Frans:

-Book: Different: Gender Through The Eyes Of A Primatologist:
-TED Talk: Moral Behavior In Animals:

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