Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

What can diplomacy learn from primates? [Podcast interview with Prof. Frans de Waal]

Published on 11 February 2021
Updated on 05 April 2024

In January 2021, Diplo began a series of open monthly Zoom discussions on the evolution of diplomacy and technology titled Diplomacy and Technology: A historical journey, led by Dr Jovan Kurbalija. This series evolved into a publication: History of Diplomacy and Technology: From smoke signals to Artificial Intelligence

As part of the series, Kurbalija interviewed Prof. Frans de Waal, one of the world’s foremost experts on primate behaviour, to find out more about the ‘diplomatic practices’ of primates, and how and when they negotiate, compromise, and mediate.  

De Waal is a Dutch–American biologist and ethologist, and a professor in Emory University’s psychology department. He is also the director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta. Watch his TED talk on the moral behavior of animals.

Note: The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Jovan Kurbalija: We usually say that diplomacy started when our predecessors realised that it’s better to hear the message than to eat the messenger. Did diplomacy actually begin earlier?

Frans de Waal: There are many primates that I would call ‘diplomatic’ in the sense that they don’t always get away with force, as force usually brings counter-force, so force is not often a preferred method. Since primates have conflicts, but at the same time live in a group (which they do because they benefit from each other), they have to resolve these conflicts. So, they face the same dilemmas that we face, that is, you sometimes have conflicts with partners that you need and conflicts within situations where it would be better not to have conflicts.

You may also get a situation where diplomacy is needed. For example, after fights between male chimpanzees (which can sometimes be really violent), there are often reconciliations. The males would come together and kiss and embrace each other. Then they would settle down and groom each other. That’s their reconciliation. Now, these reconciliations don’t come easily to them, so we sometimes have high-ranking females, usually fairly old, who mediate between these males and who bring them together, and who will literally tug at the arm of one of the males to get him to move towards the other. So in my mind, that’s diplomacy. I don’t think diplomacy is a human invention. The human invention comes in when you talk about the language that’s being used, and the proposals that are being made. That’s human. But the process of bringing parties together who don’t necessarily want to be together predates our species.

JK: Probably the most delicate aspect of diplomacy is mediation. Could you elaborate on the role females play in bringing the males together to reconcile their differences?

FDW: Mediation does have many different forms. Males also mediate, but in a more authoritative way. Males will step in when there’s a conflict between others. They will step in, stand between the parties, and wait until the conflict stops. In these situations, they look very impressive. They have all their hair up and stand up to stop the fight. That’s a form of mediation. But the females are usually more subtle in these things. One of the things females do, which I find really interesting, is that they sometimes confiscate weapons.

So you may have males who have big rocks in their hands or big sticks which can do damage. Usually, males gear up for confrontations with a lot of hooting and hair, preparing for the confrontation, and that’s the moment when the females step in, and walk up to one of them. Only high-ranking older females do this, not younger females. They walk up to one of the males and they just take the rock out of his hand, and the male lets them do it. So they confiscate weapons which is a way of preventing violence. There’s also mediation in conflicts among children which usually females do, but males may also step in when two kids are fighting. They will step in to stop it. That’s a very important part of the group process, because when kids fight, very often the mothers will start fighting because they defend their kids, and so for a male to step in, even a high-ranking male, and stop a fight among kids, is a very important way of dampening conflict in the group.

JK: So disarmament starts and then mediation continues. You are referring here to primates. Can you specify which species you are referring to in these examples?

FDW: The closest relatives of humans are chimps and bonobos who share 98% of identical DNA with humans. So we’re very close. We’re so close that some taxonomists would like to put us in the same genus as chimps and bonobos. Actually, the two elephant species, the Asian and the African elephant, are about as close as we are to chimps and bonobos. We call them both ‘elephants’, so we should probably call apes and humans the same thing, for example, ‘apes’.

Then you have more distant species like monkeys, you probably know of baboons, macaques, those types of animals. They are more distant from us, but they also have hierarchies, and conflicts, and conflict resolutions, but they’re a bit more distant from us. I’m mostly talking about chimps and bonobos. Bonobos are much less known to the public, and bonobos are female-dominated. This complicates things if you want to compare. You have actually a three-way comparison: humans with chimps and bonobos. One is male-dominated the other one is female-dominated, so that makes things a bit more complicated.

JK: You mentioned cooperation which is important for the deployment of diplomacy. What examples of cooperation within groups do you feel are important for our debates?

FDW: Cooperation in chimpanzees and bonobos is mostly what we would call coalitions, i.e. I help you and you help me. For example, I may help you become the alpha male which means that you’re very dependent on me and that you, as the alpha male, will need to be very nice with me because I’m your supporter. These are called ‘coalitions’ and they are the most typical form of cooperation, and maybe the oldest form in primates. There are 200 primate species and all of them form coalitions.

Then there are more complex forms of cooperation which you get from hunting together or defending against predators together. For example, chimps in the forest sometimes defend each other against leopards which is a very dangerous and risky thing, but they do that for each other. They hear another chimp scream and they will go over and get rid of the leopard. These forms of cooperation are well known. We know that these animals have what we call ‘valuable relationships’, i.e., certain friends and family members that they always hang out with and who support them, and they support them in return. Those valuable relationships are very important from the diplomacy perspective.

There’s a lot of research, maybe 500 studies now, on the reconciliation behaviour of groups living in the forest, or in captivity, or in experiments, and we know that these processes of reconciliation occur especially between the valuable partners. If you have a fight with someone you depend on and you travel with all the time, that’s the one you’re going to reconcile with. If you have a fight with someone you don’t depend on and you don’t particularly care about, you’re not going to reconcile. That’s what we call the ‘valuable relationship hypothesis’ which means you make peace with those you need. I would say that the EU is based on that same principle. We decided to increase the value of the relationships after World War II in order to get a more peaceful world. I think that this rule is very general. There’s even experiments on this in monkeys where you analyse the level of reconciliations when you increase the value of a relationship. So we have pretty good evidence that that’s how it works.

JK: You mentioned the concept of reciprocity, for example in promoting alpha males. How does reciprocity work in valuable relations vs non-valuable relationships?

FDW: Reciprocity can be found on many levels. For example, we did experiments with chimpanzees in captivity within a group where we gave them food that they could share. But before we gave them the food, like big watermelons, we measured who grooms who in the morning, because chimps spend a lot of time grooming each other. We would measure grooming, give them food, and watch who shared food with whom. What we found is that if I have groomed you for a long time in the morning, you are much more likely to share food with me in the afternoon than if I had not groomed you.

We found reciprocity between grooming and food-sharing. I’m sure there’s reciprocity in the support that they give each other in fights. There’s probably reciprocity in how they help each other, defend the group, and so on. So reciprocity is highly developed which means that they remember favours, at least for a couple of days, maybe for weeks, maybe longer, we don’t know exactly. But like humans, they remember favours and they repay them. And I think a lot of that works through close relationships. Two males who, for example, always travel together and help each other all the time, don’t necessarily keep track of every little thing they do for each other. They just have a generally positive reciprocal relationship. I think in humans it works the same way with your best friends or with the one you’re married to. You’re not going to keep track of every little favour that occurs because you have a general positive relationship. 

JK: When it comes to reciprocity, we have the related concept of empathy. Have you found elements of empathy in your research with primates?

FDW: Yes. Empathy is a mammalian characteristic, it’s not exclusively human. In all the mammals you’ll find sensitivity to the emotions of others. When you talk of empathy, you may talk about high-level empathy, like putting yourself in the shoes of somebody else, or imagining their situation, which is a cognitive take on empathy, and that occurs in humans and some large-brained animals like elephants and chimpanzees. But more basic forms of empathy, where you’re sensitive to the emotions of others and respond to them, and sometimes try to fix problems if they have problems, that kind of empathy is, for example, clearly present in dogs, but also in all mammals. We think that it started with maternal care which is obligatory in mammals. That’s also why females have more empathy than males.

Whether you’re a mouse or an elephant mother, you need to pay attention to your offspring’s cries of distress, or of being cold, or hungry, or in danger. That’s probably how it got started and that’s why we find it in all mammals. For example, a very simple experiment done with human children was to go into a human family and tell the adults that they have to fake a cry, fake a distress, and then see how young children respond. Very young children, girls more than boys, will respond to the distress of an adult and stroke them, touch them, and talk to them. In the same studies, they found that the dogs did the same thing, and in later studies, specifically done on dogs in families, the dogs also responded to the distress of humans and licked their face and things like that. So this kind of empathy, which we call consolation behaviour, you can find in many animals. In chimpanzees and bonobos, it’s more typically expressed in the form of embracing and kissing, which is exactly the same sort of behaviour that human children show.

JK: What about compromise in resolving conflicts? How relevant is compromise, as it’s part of the core of diplomacy?

FDW: We can see compromise, for example, in weaning chimpanzee offsprings. In chimpanzees, the weaning happens much later than in humans, somewhere around age four or five, since they develop slowly. Usually, the chimps have enormous tantrums, they roll over the ground, and scream and yell because their mother doesn’t want to nurse them anymore. I’ve often seen that then a compromise is reached by which the mother allows the kid to suckle on an ear or a lip, but not on the nipple. So, she is weaning them, but she allows them some sort of solution for their distress. This will last for a couple of weeks or a couple of months, and then it’s over.

You’ll see these types of compromises in adult relationships when two parties have different interests and need to arrive at some kind of intermediary solution. I think social life is full of compromises in all primates. I don’t think it’s a unique human feature. If you look for what is uniquely human, I think it’s the use of language and that we can negotiate things from a distance, over the phone, or over Zoom. We can use language and that allows us to express our opinions more clearly than animals because, for example, all chimpanzees and bonobos can do is vocalise and use body language. They don’t have language to express how they feel about a particular situation.

JK: A dominant position in the philosophy of political and social sciences, which especially began with Hobbes, argues that human life is solitary, poor, nasty, and brutish, and that human nature is, by default, prone to conflicts and dominance. The other approach is more optimistic, supported by thinkers like Rousseau, which argues that man is born free and that he is in chains during life. Based on your research of primates, what are your thoughts on this rather simplistic dichotomy of our nature being either negative (dangerous and aggressive) or positive (loving and creating harmonious societies)?

FDW: I’m very used to the Hobbesian view because people express that all the time. They think that in nature we have a dog-eat-dog world, that everyone is at each other’s throats, that everything is negative, and we describe everything negatively, through competition, rivalry, and so on.

As soon as you mention positive things about animals, like that they may have empathy, or that they reconcile after fights, or that they have friends, friendships, or maybe even love between a mother chimpanzee and her child, people get upset because these are positive terms and we’re not supposed to use them for natural situations.

But I would say that we see all these positive things we humans are so proud of in other species. We are a highly social species, a highly empathic and altruistic species, and I think the Hobbesian view is clearly wrong. It often compares us with wolves, and even wolves are very cooperative animals and get along and do things together. I think it’s a completely wrong view of the human species and of nature to say that everything is negative. Now, I would never idealise and say everything is positive because that’s clearly not true either. So, I think we need to arrive at some situation in between where we say that we got both our positive and negative tendencies from our primate ancestors. 

JK: How can we strengthen this positive approach in a time when the Hobbesian view is dominant? What would you advise to diplomats and students of international relations regarding the future of negotiations, compromise, diplomacy, and ultimately our society?

FDW: I think the increase of mutual dependency will decrease open conflicts. This is in a way already happening in the world; the world is getting smaller and more connected. Certainly, more economically connected. I mentioned the EU earlier. The EU illustrates how, if you make countries economically dependent on each other, you’re going to reduce conflicts between them.

I think that the increasing integration of the world, especially economic and political integration, is going to reduce conflict and open conflict. I think this process is already happening. I think the Hobbesian view is not only completely wrong but is also out of time. This process should not be stopped. The ‘America first’ or ‘France first’ type of thinking and putting your country before the world is not the solution to these problems. I think we need to have more integration.

JK: Thank you for this optimistic note which is backed by research. Do you have any other comments about the future research in this field or future discussions?

FDW: I once had a talk here with Jimmy Carter (I live in Atlanta). We talked about the processes of peacemaking between nations, and he said that it always boils down to personalities and to people. This brings us a little bit back to primates, where everything depends on the relationship between individuals who know each other. I think this also applies to diplomacy. Diplomacy does not happen between two big countries, but, in the end, between two individuals who need to get along and understand each other and maybe like each other.  In a sense, the processes that we see in primates and in humans are not radically different.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

Subscribe to Diplo's Blog