on November 13, 2002
Frans de Waal is one of the best known primatologists in the United States, and GOOD NATURED shows why. This careful study of primate behavior, both non-human and human, explores the issue of morality and the complex emotions that give rise to it. De Waal's topics range from empathy to social rules to diplomacy as he describes specific examples across primate species.
The black and white pictures illustrate his points, but they are by no means the highlight of this book. De Waal's insights, which never read too much into specific behaviors, walk the fine line between objective scientific reporting and an acknowledgment of the kinship between all primates. Seeing primates through his expert eyes is an enlightening experience.
This is truly an extraordinary book. I recommend it to readers who have a keen interest in primatology, sociology, and/or the kinship between humans and other species.
on January 21, 2012
It is said that chimpanzees use tools. That seems implausible, yet scholars love the idea. De Waal says chimpanzees understand gratitude, obligation, retribution, indignation, and sympathy. That sounds plausible, though scholars hotly disagree, and reprimand this "anthropomorphism." As if they had an alternative. De Waal bids adieu to the egregious simplicities of "classical sociobiology." He does not pretend to show that this or that aspect of vaunted morals is "really nothing but" our selfish genes. Nevertheless, many building blocks of morality--the sentiments and cognitions underlying it--were in place before sapiens arose. Morals are not uniquely human because the predicaments they address belong to the social life of primates.
This review originally appeared in Common Knowledge, vol. 7 (3) (1998).
on May 13, 2002
I teach graduate level courses on violence and was hoping that this book would give me some much-need background on roots of altruism and violence among primates. I must say that I am used to reading Richard Dawkins and Steven Jay Gould.
Despite the fact that the topic is fascinating, I find that De Waal is generally a poor writer. The message is lost on run-on sentences and chapters that seem to go on for ever.
I liked the pictures, though.
on February 18, 1998
A colleague and I chose this book as our "science selection" for our freshman studies classes at a small private college in the midwest. It's been a great choice. De Waal's approach is careful and considered; he is able to talk about ethics among non-human primates without anthropomorphizing. Even better, unlike some of his predecessors in what he calls "classical sociobiology," De Waal does not leap primate species in a single bound. Rather, he considers such issues as altruism and hierarchy in the bonobo, chimp and monkey universes on their own terms. This book is post-sociobiology and post-ethology without succumbing to glib anti-science perspectives.
De Waal is a superb writer. His style has absolutely captivated two classrooms full of bright college freshmen. The subject matter is fascinating. This book is a marvelous mix of natural and social sciences.
I envy De Waal's Emory office with the window view of Yerkes Center chimp life. What an amazing way to live!