Prosocial Primates: Empathy in Animals and Humans

The Greater Good Science Center presents Frans de Waal

The GGSC is pleased to present this talk by Greater Good editorial board member Frans de Waal--world-renowned primatologist, one of Discover magazine's "47 Great Minds of Science," and a pioneer in the study of the evolutionary basis of empathy and kindness. Dr. de Waal's research is not only foundational to the GGSC's work but is always highly entertaining and eye-opening.

In this talk, he will explore the evolutionary roots of empathy and sympathy in animals.

The possibility that animals have empathy and sympathy has received little attention due to two factors. One is that evolutionary biology, until recently, preferred a "nature red in tooth and claw" view that had no place for kindness. The second has been an excessive fear of anthropomorphism and a taboo on the term "emotion" in relation to animals.

Both of these influences take little account of actual animal behavior, which would lead one to agree with Darwin that "many animals certainly sympathize with each other's distress or danger." In Dr. de Waal’s work with monkeys, apes, and elephants, he has found many cases of one individual coming to another's aid in a fight, putting an arm around a previous victim of attack, or other emotional responses to the distress of others. In fact, he posits that the entire communication system of nonhuman primates is emotionally mediated.

This event is free and open to the public.

  • Dr. Frans B. M. de Waal is a Dutch/American biologist and primatologist known for his work on the behavior and social intelligence of primates. His first book, Chimpanzee Politics (1982) compared the schmoozing and scheming of chimpanzees involved in power struggles with that of human politicians. His scientific work has been published in hundreds of technical articles in journals such as Science, Nature, Scientific American, and outlets specialized in animal behavior. His popular books -- translated into many languages -- have made him one of the world's most visible primatologists. His latest books are The Age of Empathy (2009, Harmony) and The Bonobo and the Atheist (Norton, 2013).


    De Waal is C. H. Candler Professor in the Psychology Department of Emory University and Director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Center, in Atlanta, Georgia. He has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences (US), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences. In 2007, he was selected by Time as one of The Worlds’ 100 Most Influential People Today, and in 2011 by Discover as among 47 (all time) Great Minds of Science.