Franz de Waal, the renowed primatologist who has pushed reconciliation and morality alike into our primate past, answered some great questions about life, love, sex and happiness at the NY Times Freakonomics blog.
Here’s a taste about bonobos: “Bonobos often engage in sex with same-sex partners, but they’re not gay in that they also have sex with the opposite sex. They’re ‘bi.’ They seek sex often for social reasons, to reduce tensions, and to form friendships.”
And one of my favorite answers? Building from his work with capuchin monkeys and a sense of fairness, de Waal says, “This holds an important message for American society which is becoming less fair by the day. The Gini-index (which measures income inequality) keeps rising and is now more in line with that of third-world countries than of other industrialized nations. If monkeys already have trouble accepting income inequality, you can imagine what it does to us. It creates great tensions within a society, and we know that tensions affect psychological and physical well-being. Some attribute the dismal health statistics of Americans (now #42 in the world’s longevity ranking) to the social frictions of an unfair society.”
de Waal is also organizing a June 2009 conference called “The Primate Mind: Built to Connect with Other Minds.” My colleague Katherine MacKinnon, a primatologist herself, tipped me off about it. Here’s the blurb: “A high-level international meeting of cognitive ethologists, behavioral biologists, and neuroscientists that will address how the primate (including human) mind relates to other minds through empathy, imitation, and other social cognition.” The best part? It’s in Sicily! (Well, maybe June is hot there, but still, a great place for a conference.)