Feature

Psychology will soon be transformed by both neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, predicts internationally renowned primatologist Frans B.M. de Waal, PhD, who will give the "Focus on Science" plenary address at APA's 2001 Annual Convention in San Francisco, Aug. 24­28.

"Psychology has been isolated from evolutionary biology for too long," de Waal says. "I think it's inevitable that psychology is going to become a lot more Darwinian, and I don't think people should be scared of that."

De Waal is the C.H. Candler professor of primate behavior at Emory University's department of psychology and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center in Atlanta.

In his talk, "The inevitability of evolutionary psychology and the limitations of adaptationism: lessons from the other primates," de Waal will discuss the increasingly prominent role of evolutionary theory in psychological research.

Biological approaches to behavior have traditionally received a lukewarm reception among many psychologists, de Waal observes, noting that some scientists view such perspectives as reductionistic--overlooking complex environmental effects on behavior in favor of purely biological explanations.

"Since psychology came out of a more philosophical tradition, it has always maintained these dualisms of mind and body, human and animal, which biology cast aside long ago," de Waal says. Dropping those dualisms, he believes, will allow psychology to develop a more nuanced view of human behavior.

"Not that such nuance is visible at the moment," de Waal acknowledges. "There has been an unfortunate tendency in evolutionary psychology to oversimplify things, to jump too quickly from genes to behavior." But he argues that psychologists should embrace the opportunity to understand behavior more fully by investigating its origins at a range of levels, from the biological to the cultural.

For such evolutionary perspectives to be more palatable to psychologists, de Waal argues, "All we need is a more enlightened type of Darwinism that integrates the effects of learning and the environment. It's not as though natural selection dictates specific behavior under all circumstances--it rather induces tendencies for behavior. The more comprehensive theories will have behavioral flexibility built into them."

In his lecture--at 11 a.m. on Aug. 25--de Waal will draw from his work on social behavior in nonhuman primates, which has underscored the cultural complexity of the animal kingdom--a central theme of much of his work, including his most recent book, "The Ape and the Sushi Master: Cultural Reflections by a Primatologist" (Basic Books, 2001).

In that book, de Waal argues that human cultural biases have interfered with our recognizing the importance of culture in the other primates.

"There's a strong tendency, in Western science, to use the word culture in such an exalted way, as though culture is something that is separate from nature," de Waal says. "The term culture has taken on the same coloring as the term soul: We [humans] have culture, we have escaped from nature, and we are the only ones who have made that transition."

Combating that notion in his book, de Waal describes research that illustrates how transmission of habits and knowledge in animal societies helps shape and modify primates' temperament and behavior.

"Not even for monkeys and apes would I dare to make some of the claims now being made regarding the evolution of human behavior--monkeys and apes are not instinct machines," he concludes. "We need to develop a multilayered evolutionary perspective that applies equally to all primates, human and nonhuman."

De Waal's research on reconciliation, peacemaking and social reciprocity in monkeys, chimpanzees and bonobos has revealed that nonhuman primates--like humans--are political creatures with an apparent capacity for empathy and morality.

The assumption used to be, de Waal explains, that animals live in a purely competitive world and that their social interactions were always in the context of a win-lose scheme.

"The research that I've set up and that others are now doing clearly indicates that it's not a win-lose scheme," he says. "Both parties have something to lose if something goes wrong in the relationship. It has forced us to rethink relationships--they're not just zero-sum games."

In addition to his scholarly work in primate social psychology, de Waal serves on the board of directors of Chimp Haven, an effort to establish sanctuaries for "retired" chimpanzees no longer required for research. He is a member of the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences. The author of numerous scholarly and popular books and articles on primate behavior, he received the Los Angeles Times Book Award for his 1989 book "Peacemaking Among Primates" (Harvard University Press).

Further Reading

The Web site for the Living Links Center can be found at www.emory.edu/LIVING_LINKS/.