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Scientists' Nightstand: Frans de Waal

Frank Diller

Frans B. M. de Waal is C. H. Candler Professor of Psychology at Emory University and director of the Living Links Center for the Advanced Study of Ape and Human Evolution at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta.

Frans de WaalClick to Enlarge Image

An ethologist and zoologist, de Waal is best known for his work on the social intelligence of primates. Born in the Netherlands, he moved to the United States in 1981. His first book, Chimpanzee Politics (1982), compared the schmoozing and scheming of chimpanzees involved in power struggles with that of human politicians. Ever since, de Waal has drawn parallels between primate and human behavior. His popular books—translated into more than a dozen languages—have made him one of the world's most visible primatologists. The Ape and the Sushi Master was reviewed in the May-June 2001 issue ( His most recent book, My Family Album: Thirty Years of Primate Photography, will be available from University of California Press in October.

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure?

Tess Uriza Holthe, When the Elephants Dance
John Grisham, The Street Lawyer
Antonio Damasio, Looking for Spinoza

Why did you choose them, and what do you think of them?

I am writing this just after summer, when I read different fare than during the academic year, which is filled with books for research, teaching and my own writing. The book by Holthe was recommended by my wife, Catherine, who reads far more fiction than I do. I was going on a trip to Tanzania, which meant a 35-hour flight. It has been a long time since I have enjoyed a book so much: extremely well-written, fantastic mythologies told by the story's characters, and in the meantime a history lesson about the Philippines. On my way back I needed another book, and in the camp's "library" (a dumping ground for trash novels), I found Grisham's book. I was exhausted from days of hurrying up and down the mountains to keep up with wild chimpanzees, and thought this book would keep me busy without straining my mind too much. I had not expected it to be such a powerful social commentary. In describing a wealthy attorney who turns his attention to the homeless, the author mocks the insane lawyering of American society, the greed, and the callous way in which society treats the have-nots. It is as powerful a statement against Social Darwinism as any I have seen.

I must have read all of Damasio's books, but Looking for Spinoza is special in that it is set in my native country, the Netherlands, where Spinoza lived and worked in the 17th century. Spinoza was a deeper thinker than I had suspected, with views nicely fitting the bottom-up view of the mind coming out of modern neuroscience.

Who are your favorite writers (fiction, nonfiction or poetry)? Why?
Related to my own field, I like especially the books of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Robert Sapolsky (for example, A Primate's Memoir), Alison Jolly, Deborah Blum (for example, Love at Goon Park), Ed Wilson, and the early books of Jane Goodall. I thoroughly dislike authors with a condescending tone ("Let me explain this to you, dumb reader"), which seems the dominant British style, and much prefer writers who convey enthusiasm, puzzlement and hesitation about what things mean. Reading Wilson's Naturalist, for example, I get the feeling of being there when he (as a boy) grabs snakes out of the water, which prepares me better for the larger questions than any academic throat-clearing.

In fiction, I like Gabriel García Márquez, Hugo Claus and Harry Mulish (two authors writing in Dutch), Margaret Atwood, John Irving, and others with great creative powers.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.
As a young biology student in the 1960s, I read the books of Konrad Lorenz and Desmond Morris. This was before the time that the evolutionary perspective on human behavior became commonplace. These authors were extremely controversial (in fact, the best publicity for these books came from our professors' warnings) as they speculated about the links between animal and human behavior in a way that we now might consider simplistic or naive. I felt immediately drawn to it, though, seeing it as the only approach that made sense.

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