Frans de Waal

“You cannot go wrong with compassion” – primatologist Frans de Waal – Sentientist Conversations

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Frans ( is a primatologist & ethologist. He is Professor of Primate Behavior at Emory University, director of the Living Links Center at Emory & the author of many books including “Chimpanzee Politics”, “Our Inner Ape” & “The Bonobo & the Atheist”. He has featured in TV/radio productions & TED talks viewed by tens of millions of people. His research centers on primate social behavior, including conflict resolution, cooperation, inequity aversion, & food-sharing. He is a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences & the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts & Sciences.

In Sentientist Conversations we talk about the two most important questions: “what’s real?” & “what matters?” Sentientism is “evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” The audio is on our Podcast here on Apple and here on the other platforms. ​​​​ You can watch the video here.

We discuss:
0:00 Welcome

1:19 Frans’ Intro – Understanding animals

  • Ethology, primates, animal behaviour, intelligence & morality
  • Breaking out of behaviourism. “We have so much evidence for animal intelligence… these taboos are being broken”
  • The ripple effect. Finding remarkable capabilities first in primates, then in many other species

4:05 What’s Real? From Catholic to apathist

  • Growing up Catholic & dropping religion at 17
  • “My parents were very unhappy but I was part of a generation where everyone was doing that”
  • “The Bonobo & the Atheist” & human need for religion
  • Apathism… “I don’t particularly care if god exists”
  • “In Catholicism & every religion there’s a lot of hypocrisy… people who talk one way & act another”
  • Child abuse scandals & cover-ups
  • “Jesus was an inspiring figure… whether he’s a real historical figure or not”
  • Half of people in the Netherlands call themselves atheists & we see that coming to the USA now

8:48 What Matters Morally?

  • Religion & evolution & intuition as drivers of morality
  • Religions can provide narratives to support your moral intuitions (e.g. the good samaritan)
  • “You cannot go wrong with compassion, morally”
  • Studying empathy in non-human animals
  • You can’t build a moral system without empathy
  • Reasoning & logic, without compassion, can lead to awful harm
  • “Empathy & compassion are not human inventions”
  • Very young human children & dogs both show compassion to a crying person (Carolyn Zahn-Waxler)
  • We find compassion in many non-human animals & that is the basis for human morality too
  • The ability to detect sentience in others & to feel affected by it. Roots in maternal care (hence empathy more developed in females)? Oxytocin
  • “If you have a co-operative animal society you need to worry about you fellows”
  • “Empathy is a very adaptive trait”
  • The evolution of sentience as a class of info processing?
  • “I read ‘Consciousness Explained’ (Dennett) & I still don’t know what it is”
  • We now know some animals can plan ahead
  • Sentience as experiencing things. “Certainly all animals with brains… must have experiences because they have bodies that need to react.”
  • Plants? Mollusks?

20:50 Human Moral Development

  • Empathy can be parochial – restricted to those like us/in our tribe (Oxytocin drives out-group behaviour too). Compassion is more broad minded
  • “Be careful with oxytocin”
  • Moral development – we have to add to our evolved empathy
  • Non-humans & early humans didn’t have a Geneva Convention
  • Extending moral consideration to non-human animals

24:49 Who Warrants Compassion?

  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  • “We don’t want indiscriminate compassion – we also want commitments”
  • We can’t abandon in-group prioritisation
  • Religious & non-religious ways of privileging humans
  • We value mammals/cuddliness/attractiveness more highly. “We are very biased”
  • We care about dogs in the west but not pigs. Yet there’s not much of a difference
  • Struggling with the ethics of working with captive animals (always non-invasively & on a volunteer basis)
  • Being surrounded by people who conduct medical research on animals. Can it be justified? Moving to non-invasive, voluntary research
  • “People used to be dependent on animal meat… but that equation has changed… it’s not strictly necessary any more”
  • “I’m not opposed to eating animals but I object to how the animals that we eat are being treated”
  • “As soon as you take people into a pig farm they will notice the problem”
  • Showing videos of farm/slaughterhouse conditions when people buy animal products?
  • “I eat barely any mammals any more”
  • We need to get rid of factory farming

42:52 The Future

  • Being less tribal & binary
  • “Nature is full of ambiguities”
  • “Humans are programmed to be in/out group animals”
  • Breaking the species boundary
  • “Our empathy is intended for our inner circle of family & friends but we have the capacity to expand it.”
  • “We need to put pressure on the philosophers… The philosophers have given us… a philosophy where humans are set apart from the rest of nature”
  • “This whole idea that we dominate nature… because we are superior beings… that has given us the climate change problem, the pandemic…”
  • “Philosophers have always emphasised human uniqueness. As a biologist, I can tell you, humans are animals”
  • Human exceptionalism links back to ideas of the soul & mind/body dualism.

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Thanks Graham for the post-production.

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