Frans De Waal'S And Michael Tomasello'S Research On The Difference Between Monkey And Man


De Waal: The most obvious characteristic human beings share with apes is sociability, a trait that enabled the survival of both these species. Frans de Waals points out apes live in groups with other apes and have to constantly make decisions about how to treat other individuals. which means that, like humans, they walk a fine line between cooperation and competition, self-interested behaviour and helpfulness, peace and conflict. Both species must strike a balance between being imposing and blending in. Our brains reflect this duality and are divided between emotions and rationality; we strive to control our desires for sex, power and food while using our reason with which consider the consequences of our actions(221). By attempting to obtain mates, resources and food, we are naturally confronted to the same social situations. (224). Our logic is influenced by experience as well. This explains why former events (experience?) affect our future behaviour. This a trait we have in common with our fellow primates (222). Therefore, we cannot argue that apes are solely driven by their instinct, seeing as the word instinct excludes the capability of learning and applying experience to choices (222). The social dilemmas and situations both species are confronted with are the same. For example, reputation plays an important role in both apes’ and humans’ social lives. (223). This means that not only they have the same emotional capacity, they have the same kinds of emotions; they feel jealousy when their place in a group is threatened or feel panic or sadness when they are rejected. Their need to belong is why they each feel empathy, an emotion only social animals could experience.

Intentional/shared intentionality

De Waal/Tomasello: An experiment was done in which 29 chimpanzees were presented with both desirable and undesirable food. In case(a) a banana was delivered, in (b) half a banana was delivered, and in (c) only the chow of a banana was delivered. In cases (a) and (b) the apes demonstrated persistence (in asking for more food?) and elaboration of their communication. “Their communication was therefore about a specific item, proving that intentionality and nonverbal reference are capacities shared by both humans and apes”. This is a point with which both Michael Tomasello and Frans de Waal agree. “This form of communication demands understanding that others have goals and perceptions – and result in a kind of practical reasoning about what others are doing and, perhaps, why they are doing it”. (321)

Tomasello: However, Micheal Tomasello argues in chapter 7 that shared intentionality, which includes requesting, informing and sharing, is employed solely by humans (321). Indeed, he claims apes do not share joint goals or plans; they do not participate in truly collaborative activities (324). They use gestural communication to request and/or demand, but they do not have the common goals and shared assumptions that characterize human communication (324).


Tomasello: Apes’ understanding of intentions, an advantage for apes in competitive circumstances (339), lead to human joint attention and communicative intentions born in the context of human collaborative activity.(340). Cooperative motives for informing others, evolved from concerns about reputation for helpfulness, then turned into shared assumptions and cooperative norms. And finally, humans’ natural communicative gestures turned to human communicative conventions. (335, 340) When we say communication, we think of language. But what exactly is considered language? We identify human communication as language because it demands conscious control, arbitrary symbols and displacement. Our system also has combinatorial rules to create new meanings unlike apes, whose communication is instinctive and reflexive. (Zhou) Tomasello explains how human communication would have been quite different if it had evolved in the context of competition rather than cooperation (341). Common ground wouldn’t exist, and so communicative conventions could not be determined (341). There would be no point in developing acts of reference, seeing as there would be no motive to understand what others are trying to share with us. And so, no norms of communication or conventions would be established, since they require cooperative understanding and interests.

De Waal: Although apes lack the use of language, De Waal’s points out the similarities between apes’ communication and humans’. Although primates rarely engage in face-to-face contact, they communicate through the means of gestures. Without body language and facial expressions, De Waal argues that even humans cannot communicate very well. We rely on the body much more than we realize, and so we are more like apes in this respect than we generally think. Richard Moore even suggests that monkeys don’t require the use of language to communicate because their body cues are so evidence-rich.

Summary of arguments

Frans de Waal claims that we are not the only moral animals. Primates share our moral behaviour and capability to feel emotions such as empathy, on which is based their social life and cooperative behaviours. Micheal Tomasello, on the other hand, rejects the existence of their cooperative tendencies, seeing as he does not believe in apes’ shared intentionality, essential to true cooperation. He claims apes are individualistic and “act together” for their own personal interests. Even as they participate in what at first seems to us cooperative activities, such as flea picking, we consistently notice a lack of joint intentions or attention. They are pure examples of “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” situations.

03 December 2019
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