Perceptions of Animals

Dr. Frans de Waal
By Frans de Waal, Ph.D.

Frans de Waal is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Primate Behavior at Emory University and the Director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. He is also a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences and a member of the AJOB Neuroscience editorial board. His research focuses on primate social behavior, including conflict resolution, cooperation, inequality aversion, and food-sharing. 

At a recent workshop on "Beastly Morality" (April 5, 2013, Emory Ethics Center), which drew participants from all over the country, I asked an innocent question. We had about sixty scholars presenting or listening to academic papers on the human-animal relationship or the place of animals in literature, and I asked how many of them worked with animals on a daily basis. The answer: no one.

It was a naive question, because if I had expected half of them to say that they did work with animals, these same academics would probably be writing on something totally different, such as the behavior of animals, their treatment by us, or their intelligence. That's what I do, being a scientist. We rarely write about anything that cannot be observed or measured, and so we assume it must be the same for everybody else. But if one's focus is how Thomas Aquinas viewed animals, the definition of personhood, or the moral status of animals in Medieval Japan -- all of which were topics at the workshop -- first-hand knowledge of animals is hardly required.

Undeniably, there is a dearth of exchange between scientists and other academics on the issue of animals, the reason being that for scientists the animal is a concrete study object, whereas for scholars in English departments or other corners of the humanities, the animal often is an abstract entity judged by its place in literature, its perception in history, its role in religion, or its relation to human self-identity. Are we animals? Positions seem to be gradually shifting in this direction, but none of this relates much to the essence of the animal itself, even less to any specific species, such as our closest relatives, the anthropoid apes.

On the other hand, it would be naive for scientists to think that how we study animals is free from cultural biases. It is impossible for us to break away from human perceptions. There is a reason, for example, why treatment of animals as individuals by giving them names and following their lives over time -- a common technique today -- is not a Western invention. Lacking souls, animals were traditionally viewed as all the same. European ethologists kept talking about species-typical behavior, and American behaviorists did not even appreciate that species might differ. B. F. Skinner bluntly said: “Pigeon, rat, monkey, which is which? It doesn’t matter” (Bailey, 1986).

There was enormous resistance, therefore, to the personalization of animals, so much so that when Kinji Imanishi, the father of Japanese primatology, visited American universities in 1958 to explain how his students recognized a hundred different monkeys in each troop, he only met raised eyebrows. His audience felt that doing so was an impossibility (de Waal, 2001). The first to recognize the potential of the Japanese approach was Ray Carpenter, an American primatologist. Carpenter himself identified individuals by means of tattoos, hence with an initial underestimation - typical for Western science - of their individuality. It would be a bit like me going to a party and putting colored dots on everyone’s foreheads saying that otherwise I couldn’t tell these people apart. It is obvious, however, that Carpenter was an astute observer. When he first heard of the Japanese studies, he did not share the skepticism of his colleagues, who reacted with disbelief that monkeys could be distinguished just from sight. They viewed all this naming of individuals as hopelessly anthropomorphic, which at that time was about the most damning label one could come up with. Animals were supposed to be different. They wondered if the Japanese were not grossly overestimating the social lives of their monkeys. Who said that monkeys could tell each other apart even if human observers said that they could? Even though the Japanese approach has now won many converts, I call it a "silent invasion" given how reluctant Westerners have been to recognize Imanishi's priority and influence (de Waal, 2003).

Kinji Imanishi with a baby gorilla
Clearly, the way we perceive animals affects how we conduct science. There is every reason for scientists to listen to exposés on the cultural views of animals, just as there is every reason for anyone writing on animal representations to investigate what science actually knows about the species in question. This way, both groups may come together and have a more fruitful exchange than we have had thus far.

  • Bailey, M. B. (1986). Every animal is the smartest: Intelligence and the ecological niche. In: Animal Intelligence. R. Hoage & L. Goldman (Eds.), pp. 105-113. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
  • de Waal, F. B. M. (2001). The Ape And The Sushi  Master: Cultural Reflections by a Primatologist. Basic Books, New York.
  • de Waal, F. B. M. (2003). Silent invasion: Imanishi’s primatology and cultural bias in science. Animal Cognition 6: 293-299.

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de Waal, Frans. (2013). Perceptions of Animals. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from

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