Profile: Frans de Waal

July 28, 2006

Stephen Phillips meets the academic who believes that animals can feel empathy

When renowned primatologist Frans de Waal observed chimpanzees literally kissing and making up after fighting he was advised to apply the clinical term "post-conflict affiliative behaviour" rather than anything smacking of emotion.

Ascribing emotion to animal behaviour remains a "lingering taboo" among animal researchers, de Waal says. Anyone inferring emotions in animal behaviour faces accusations of "anthropomorphism".

But de Waal, C. H. Candler professor of primate behaviour at Emory University, says his own "empirical" research on chimpanzees suggests that to read human-like mental processes into the behaviour of our "closest relatives" is not so simplistic.

"When chimpanzees do something very similar to humans, I'm willing to assume that the psychology behind it is very similar to our own," he says. "We share so much evolution."

At the International Society for Research on Emotions annual conference in Atlanta next month, Dutch-born de Waal will give a keynote speech "On the Possibility of Empathy in Other Animals". It will take issue with what he calls psychology's "top-down" approach of emphasising human notions of empathy and using that to justify humans' emotional difference with animals.

This approach, he says, views empathy as the ability to put oneself in another's shoes, to feel their pain and identify with their suffering.

"This is true in adult humans," he says. "But it's not how empathy necessarily starts."

"Much simpler forms of empathy start with being physically in tune with others," he says, referring to the "emotional contagion" of one crying pre-verbal human infant setting off another. "It doesn't mean there's understanding, but it's a very basic emotional response, the mechanism of matching the state of someone else, that's already present in mammals."

He cites McGill University research, published in Science last month, that found that mice flinch more at the suffering of mice they know than that of strangers, suggesting rudimentary empathy even among so-called "lower" mammals.

His view is that the animal kingdom, including humans, is a seamless continuum - that humans are not exceptional, as many psychologists have argued.

"When humans are bad, they are worse than any other primate - mass killing, rape and torture - and when humans are good they're better than any other animal," he says. "I'm not claiming chimpanzees are moral beings, but we have a lot of psychology in common that we employ in morality."

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