Thursday, March 21, 2024

Frans de Waal, 1948-2024: Primatologist of Darwistotelian Natural Right

Frans de Waal died on March 14th at the age of 75.  He was one of the most influential and popular biologists of the last 50 years.  He published 13 books devoted mostly to the biological study of animal behavior, and particularly apes and other primates, including human beings.  His most important contribution was in showing how human morality and politics could be understood as rooted in emotional and cognitive capacities shared with other animals.

Over the years, I have written as many as eight long posts on de Waal's work that show his deep influence on my thinking.  He sometimes responded to these posts with email messages.

To a large degree, everything he wrote was an elaboration of the insights that can be found in some form in his first book--Chimpanzee Politics (1982).  I used that book many times as a text in my courses at Northern Illinois University--particularly, the courses on "Chimpanzee Politics" and "Biopolitics and Human Nature."  Every time I used that book, it sparked lively class discussions; and I and my students always learned something new.

I was fortunate enough to meet and talk with him at least a half dozen times--including a summer workshop at Dartmouth College in 1996, a conference on Edward Westermarck in Helsinki, Finland, in 1998, and a meeting in 1999 in Atlanta at the convention of the American Political Science Association, where he was a commentator on a panel devoted to my book Darwinian Natural Right.  He was generous in supporting my intellectual career.

I was pleased when I saw that he had found my arguments for "Darwinian natural right" largely persuasive.  In his published writing, he showed that most clearly in his 2001 book The Ape and the Sushi Master: Cultural Reflections of a Primatologist, where he noted that for me "Darwin and Aristotle have begun to blend into a single person, perhaps to be called Darwistotle" (81).  He then went on to endorse my "Darwistotelian natural right" by saying that Aristotle and Darwin were indeed part of a common intellectual tradition of people who recognized the biological roots of morality in the natural inclinations and desires of human nature as shaped by an evolutionary process shared with other primates.  Like me, he saw this intellectual tradition set against the Kantian tradition of asserting that morality must be based on imperatives of pure reason transcending natural emotions and desires (349-53, 359-63).

I will remember Frans.

1 comment:

Roger Sweeny said...

Two stories:

de Waal had dedicated one of his books, "To Catherine, my favorite primate". Some time later, he was showing a visitor the chimp compound and some of the chimps. He seemed to give special attention to one and the visitor said something like, "This must be Catherine." Actually, Catherine was his wife. It was no insult to him to call her a primate.

Forty-five years ago, a guy working in a book store in Boston told one of his co-workers, who had amazing copper-colored hair, "You look like a golden lion tamarin." To which, she replied, "What's a tamarin?" "A monkey. But I really like monkeys." A year later, they were married and we're still going strong.

P.S. His 2023 "Different: Gender Through the Eyes of a Primatologist" is perhaps the best book on the subject.