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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Our Inner Ape” by Frans de Waal – book review

A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are, 2005

As de Waal puts it himself: “This book explores the fascinating and frightening parallels between primate behavior and our own, with equal regard for the good, the bad, and the ugly”.
Written in a lively style full of amazing examples and clever thinking by writer Paul de Waal  this book challenges many long believed assumptions and adds the writers own sometimes almost revolutionary beliefs based on longtime, sharp observations of both the chimpanzee – the gruff looking ambitious, power hungry, animal with brutal character and anger-management issues and the bonobo, discovered in 1929 and described as an egalitarian, peace-loving proponent of a free-spirited lifestyle.   
Some of the beliefs that you can find in this book:

-       In almost all writings about human nature it is stated that we have selfish genes, that human goodness is a sham and that we act morally only to impress others. De Waal makes it plausible that we are born with impulses that draw us to others. Later in life this make us care about them – the birth of empathy.

-       When people commit genocide they are called ‘animals’, but when they give to the poor they are praised for being ‘humane’. Isn’t this too much credit for humans and too little for the animal world? More examples than expected for ‘giving’ behavior in animals.

-       The same capacity that makes us understand others also makes it possible to hurt them deliberately. Both sympathy and cruelty rely on the ability to understand how one’s own behavior affects others which de Waal believes to be present in more than just the human race. So much for that characteristic you might have thought to be unique to humans.

-       According to de Waal, because of 180 million years of mammalian evolution and lactation, females display more and earlier empathy than men do. Pay attention, females and males: A long term relationship with a woman however is the most effective way for a man to add years to his life. The flip side is autism, an empathy disorder that keeps us from connecting with others and which is four times more prevalent in males than in females.

-       On cooperation and competition in chimpanzees and other species: there can’t be joined hunting without joined pay-offs. You may ask yourself how this relates to your company and its departments and the degree to which your people experience joined pay-offs in their projects and work.

-       According to de Waal we rely more on what we feel than on what we think when solving moral dilemmas. Emotions trump rules. An interesting statement for everyone believing that thinking comes before feeling – a premise from the Rational Emotive Therapy (Cognitive Psychology).

-       De Waal is convinced that war is not an insuppressible urge but an option. When there are plenty of resources (space, food, water) there is no point in war.  Warfare is not in our DNA as a person, he states, but I know for sure that it is in the brain structure (or somewhere) of the ‘occasional’ dangerously sick individual.

-       Human morality is firmly anchored in the social emotions with empathy at its core asserts de Waal. Self-awareness affects how we deal with others. Without self-awareness no empathy. Emotions are our compass according to de Waal.

-       Understood and accepted by many different experts: We are social to the core with our need to belong and feel accepted. Translate this to your company and assess engagement and sense of belonging in your employees.

-       We are full of contradictions and the product of opposing forces like the need to think of our self interest and the need to get along. The duality of human nature – don’t we all experience this on a daily basis and in many areas. Without this duality no life I’d like to add.

-       One of the many questions and polarities that de Waal discusses concerns whether we are most characterized by love or by hate. What is most critical for survival: cooperation or competition. I dare to say it is both, in a well balanced manner.

I could continue for quite some time and I have to stress that this post is in no way representative of the content of de Waal’s book. I think it’s a fantastic piece of work with many examples like the one about nonhuman humanness, when on August 16¸1996 an 8 year old female gorilla called Binti Jua helped and comforted a 3 year old boy who had fallen into the gorilla area in the Chicago Zoo. A famous example that has ever since been used by many politicians in their speeches. If the topic interests you, check out the book your

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