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Tribute to Frans de Waal: Can primates teach us how to stop the wars in Gaza and Ukraine?

Published on 02 April 2024
The image shows a photograph of Frans de Waal

In an era where conflict seems as entrenched in the human condition as our DNA, a provocative and poignant question emerges: Could the animal kingdom, specifically primates, teach us a better way to end wars, such as those in Gaza and Ukraine?

This was the question I intended to ask Professor Frans de Waal, a renowned primatologist who scientifically demonstrated that primates have emotions, a sense of fairness, and the ability to resolve conflicts peacefully.

Unfortunately, Frans de Waal died three weeks ago, so we were unable to discuss how primates would be better at promoting peace than humans.

This text is an obituary for Frans de Waal based on a 2021 interview when he eloquently explained that primates use a broad set of skills akin to negotiators and diplomacy.

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De Waal’s research on primates helps us revisit critical questions of whether we humans are biologically prone to conflict or compromise for war or diplomacy. Philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes represent two opposing perspectives on human nature and violence.

Rousseau argued that ‘man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.’ We are not biologically prone to conflicts. Society makes us aggressive.

Hobbes claimed that people are inherently selfish and wicked, doomed to live ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ lives. Humans cannot be trusted, so society must deal with their ‘natural’ state through a strong government, which Hobbes refers to as ‘Leviathan’.

De Waal’s work leans into the Rousseauian view of humanity, suggesting that if our primate cousins are not biologically prone to conflicts, then the roots of diplomacy and peace run deeper in us than we might think.

De Waal scientifically demonstrated that primates, including chimps, bonobos, and various species of monkeys, exhibit sophisticated social behaviours such as conflict resolution. These species live in complex societies with hierarchies and social bonds, necessitating conflict resolution and cooperation in order to maintain group cohesion.

Chimpanzees, which live in male-dominated societies, often engage in violent conflicts. However, they also participate in post-conflict reconciliations, where individuals who have fought may come together to kiss, embrace, and groom each other as a form of peacemaking.

Bonobos live in female-dominated societies and are known for their less aggressive and more sexualised social interactions. They resolve conflicts and maintain group harmony through affiliative behaviours, including sharing food and mutual grooming.

The role of gender in conflict solving, particularly the influence of high-ranking females in chimpanzee societies, further emphasises the nuanced nature of ‘primate diplomacy’ and its potential lessons for human conflict resolution.

In remembering Frans de Waal, we are not merely mourning a brilliant scientist but pondering a crucial question: If monkeys and apes, with their limited means, can find a way to coexist and reconcile, what stops us, with all our intelligence and resources, from achieving lasting peace?

As the world grapples with the horrors of the Gaza and Ukraine wars, perhaps it’s time to consider taking a page from the primates’ playbook in the pursuit of peace.

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