The drive from Weston-super-Mare to Bath is windy and hilly, and full of traffic at the time I’ve been going to attend my writing course at the American Museum there. The course starts at 10:00 but there are potential hold-ups all the way at that time; not just the volume of rush-hour traffic, but roadworks, dustbin men and their dustcarts, school buses full of country kids, and of course vehicles to do with farms – milk tankers, lorries, tractors, combined harvesters… So I’ve started leaving at 7:30 which means I don’t have to get anxious if I get held up.
I was listening to the radio as I was driving along, and there was a programme called ‘The Life Scientific’ where Dr Jim Al-Khalili talks to other scientists, experts in their different fields, about their lives and their work. Last week it was Trevor Cox, Professor of Acoustic Engineering at the University of Salford, who had a revelation in a Victorian sewer, and this week, the programme I listened to was Dr Al-Khalili in conversation with Frans de Waal, a Dutch primatologist and ethologist who now lives in the USA. He is Professor of Primate Behavior in the Emory University Psychology Department in Atlanta, Georgia, and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center
We learned about Frans’s childhood, he was born in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, and became fascinated by natural history. He went on to university and eventually began to study primates and apes and became eminent in his field, publishing many popular and well-received books. Jim drew all this out in the conversation which lasted thirty minutes, and it was really fascinating:
Genome analysis tells us we share 99% of our DNA with our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, the chimpanzee and the bonobo. And yet we seem surprised to learn that apes are kind and clever, traits we tend to like to think of as being uniquely human. Behavioural biologist and best-selling author, Frans de Waal has spent many years in offices overlooking chimp colonies, observing their behaviour on a daily basis. He pioneered studies of kindness and peace-making in primates, when other scientists were focussing on violence, greed and aggression. Empathy, he argues, has a long evolutionary history; and he is determined to undermine our arrogant assumptions of human superiority.
If you are able to listen to the podcast, this is the link: