Franz de Waal: Complementary Methods and Convergent Evidence in the Study of Primate Social Cognition

Long ago my friend Ben worked for Penguin and lived on a billion strong pile of paperbacks….Ben would reach down and hand me a tome at random. One time I looked in my hand and saw “The Ape And The Sushi Master” by someone called Franz de Waal.

I was young and stupid in the day. I never read that book: it went directly to the charity shop.

No matter. Cos now I got Student Library Access. And the world of Franz is beaming at me like a baboon’s blushing botty. This is a person I can really like.

I’m on Lecture 3 of Human Animal Interactions and tbh I’ve been finding this lecture tough going. The first two I aced, because the content was basically what I’d been reading for the past year. (I still learned loads of new stuff like hallucinating dogs and why there are no trees).

Then in L3 I got culture. First I read Brumann and his contemporaries arguing about whether “culture” is a useful concept. Probably the biggest thing I learned here is it’s no longer cool in any way to maintain rigid conceptions of race and gender. Everything comes down to the individual now, as it should be, and as I have always wanted but never been able to express.

But the takeout from Brumann and others seems to be that “cultural” can be useful adjective, e.g. cultural relativism means hallucinating dogs are important to people like Ameriga and Hilario, and interesting in a different way to people like me.

What I really like about Franz de Waal is he splits off all the authoritarian rubric and talks like a human of great and humble kindness. He’s wondering about how to study the cognitive processes of primates. His fundamental premise is parsimonious: that if humans and apes evolved along the same lines, and humans have some sort of inner speech, let’s save time and effort by assuming that apes have something similar. He makes us remember that being afraid of being anthropomorphic is just that much bull dust. After all, Descartes did the original anthropomorphic sin by splitting the animal clean off from the human – because they couldn’t possibly be “like us”.

Franz isn’t immune from the Cartesian double standard. He asks us to be courageous when we ascribe intent and purpose to what we observe primates doing. It’s OK to say an animal is “courting” when it displays its buttocks; it would be a little bit rat in the lab to instead use “notification”. Yet later when he tells us how chimps avoid conflict, he tells us how a female “activates” a sleeping elder to help break up a fight. Would “waking up” have been OK? Come to think of it, is there a better, more embracing word than “female” to nominally describe these individuals?

I feel like I’m on and off these lines in my mind: from biology and how brains work, to philosophy, to social science and back round to biology. It is a rush for sure, with the anxiety that I can’t keep on the lines. Does anyone have mental hygiene tips for the new student? Can’t keep stealing office post its in these quantities…..

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