CHAUTAUQUA, NY – An internationally known scientist and author was at Chautauqua Institution Tuesday to discuss the close connection in behavior and emotions that humans share with their primate cousins and other members of the animal kingdom.
Frans de Waal is a Dutch/American biologist and primatologist known for his work on the behavior and social intelligence of primates. His latest research concerns empathy and cooperation, inequity aversion, and social cognition in chimpanzees, bonobos and other primate species.
He explained that it is only during the past 50 years or so that biologists have learned animals share similar emotions to humans, including empathy and even altruism – which is the selfless concern for the well-being of others.
“Some large-brained animals, they have an understanding of the specific needs of others and are willing to provide help with these circumstances.” de Waal explained. “There is a lot of research now on the altruism of animals, which most of it is probably empathy based, helping behavior. So it is quite common, I would say, the impact and capacity of some of these species are very highly developed.”
De Waal’s research has found that both people and animals share similar behavior – such as helping or comforting others – and that is motivated by similar emotions. He said this is a relatively new way of seeing animals, compared to previously held theories that humans had different and more complicated emotions.
“We have been trained in biology that for animals we should have different expectations, we use a different language, we should not be anthropomorphic, we use a different language, we use different explanations because humans are very special. And I see our reactions are very similar to this, so we need to come up with a shared explanation for the two,” he said.
De Waal appeared at the Chautauqua Ampitheatre on Tuesday morning as part of the week six theme, “Building a Culture of Empathy.” The week continues today with a lecture by Jackie Acho, who will discuss how empathy can help create better leadership.