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European Primate News

Frans de Waal (1948-2024): Visionary primatologist,

influential author, and beloved mentor


Frans de Waal revolutionized our understanding of primate society by illuminating the

complex social structures and emotional lives of our closest living relatives. Through

both clever empirical studies and keen theoretical insights, his work was pivotal in

elucidating the nature and cognitive foundations of peacemaking, justice, and morality.

His research challenged prevailing notions of human uniqueness, demonstrating striking

similarities between humans and our primate cousins in terms of empathy, cooperation,

and social intelligence. Sadly, Frans passed away on March 14, 2024, leaving behind a

profound legacy that continues to shape our understanding of our place in the animal

kingdom.


Born in the Netherlands in 1948, Frans developed a lifelong passion for the natural

world from a young age. He obtained his Ph.D. in biology from Utrecht University in

1977, where he began his groundbreaking research on the behavior and social

dynamics of primates. Frans’s pioneering studies on chimpanzees at Arnhem Zoo in the

Netherlands (and later, Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center in

Atlanta, Georgia), revealed the vital role of cooperative and peaceful behavior in primate

social relationships. His discovery of behaviors like reconciliation (friendly reunions

between former opponents shortly after conflicts) and consolation (post-conflict

affiliation involving a third party) demonstrated how group members manage and

mitigate the negative effects of aggression. His focus soon broadened from aggression

and post-conflict behavior in apes and monkeys to consider various aspects of prosocial

behavior (e.g., cooperation, altruism, fairness), social emotions, and cultural

learning—topics he’d further explore with students and collaborators in other taxa

including elephants and rodents. His research approach was characterized by a deep

respect for individual animals and patient observation, allowing him to discern nuances

in their behavior that eluded others. His creative studies addressed bold questions that

took animals’ subjective perspectives and experiences seriously, enriching our

understanding of their social, cognitive, and emotional worlds.


Alongside an impressive body of empirical work were his major theoretical contributions.

Frans influenced not just natural and social scientists but also scholars in the

humanities, particularly philosophers. His pioneering efforts in challenging

anthropocentrism and championing cognitive continuity between humans and other

animals have been instrumental in shaping our understanding of animal minds and their

implications for ethics and policy. Moreover, his engaging and prolific writing and public

lectures brought these profound insights to wider audiences, igniting a sense of wonder

and awe for the natural world that drew Frans, and so many of us, to science.

His best-selling books, including ''Chimpanzee Politics''; ''Our Inner Ape''; and ''The

Bonobo and the Atheist''; not only captivated readers with vivid descriptions of primate

life but also provoked deep reflections on human nature and morality. Most recently, he

boldly took on timely topics like sex differences (“Different”) and animal emotions

(“Mama’s Last Hug”). Most of his books bore a dedication to his wife (and literary

consult and critic), Catherine Marin, whom he affectionately referred to as his favorite

primate.


Frans de Waal will be remembered not only for his groundbreaking scholarship but also

for his warmth, optimism, humor, and dedication as a mentor. Many of de Waal’s

students speak of their deep gratitude for the profound impact he has had on their

careers and lives. He went out of his way to support junior scholars and provide them

with the tools to thrive. More than just a scientific mentor, de Waal served as a role

model, valuing collaboration and showing respect even to those with differing

viewpoints. Despite his fame and achievements, he remained remarkably grounded and

unpretentious, free from the trappings of stress or self-importance. His light-hearted

demeanor fostered a convivial and collaborative atmosphere in his lab and other

scientific circles.


Frans de Waal’s visionary work will continue to shape scholarship for years to come; the

full extent of its impact and implications is likely yet to be fully realized—it is where our

field is headed. Likewise, the reach on his influence—not just for students and

collaborators but also the wider public—is expansive and endless. His memorial

website, https://www.fransdewaalmemorial.com, offers a glimpse into the countless

individuals whose lives he has touched with his work.

He will be missed dearly.


Written by Dr Christine Webb from Harvard University

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Christophe Boesch passed on January 14, 2024 and left us in deepest sadness and consternation.

Christophe did his master degree with Diane Fossey on the mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) of Ruanda, before continuing with a PhD-thesis under the supervision of Hans Kummer on chimpanzees in the Taï National Park in Côte d’Ivoire, which he completed in 1984. He became Assistant Professor at the University of Basel, Switzerland in 1991 and director of the then newly founded Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany in 1997.

In his studies, he described how chimpanzees use hammers to crack open nuts of different species of trees and how they cooperate during hunting and share meat. He reported altruistic behavior of adult males when adopting orphans, and was the first one to show how respiratory viruses transmitted by humans had a devastating effect on habituated chimpanzee communities. He spear-headed comparative studies with researchers from other field sites and described for the first time, cultural variation across populations in tropical Africa. He pioneered a novel approach of studying chimpanzee diversity across their range with the creation of the Pan African program where temporary field sites were established at 50 sites across 18 countries and showed among other spectacular findings that human impact eroded chimpanzee cultural diversity.

Early in his career he realized the necessity for researchers to engage in the conservation of this endangered species and together with his wife, Hedwige Boesch-Achermann, he founded the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation in 2000. Starting small, this foundation developed into the major driver of wild chimpanzee conservation in West Africa, including Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea resulting in the creation of several National Parks.

Christophe was a truly passionate and charismatic person. His enthusiasm, combined with his charm was highly contagious and he inspired generations of students including numerous students from chimpanzee range countries to engage into the study of chimpanzee behavior and conservation. He had an eye for details, allowing him to discover aspects of chimpanzee behavior never having been described before. Often his findings were met with deep skepticism but he never shied away from defending his views, many of which contribute to the knowledge foundation of primatology students today.

His tireless work, enthusiasm and passion to assure the survival and protection of chimpanzees across Africa continues to be carried forward at the two long-term field sites he founded in the Taï National Park in Côte d’Ivoire Côte (www.taichimps.org) and in the Loango National Park in Gabon (www.ozouga.org), at the Helmholtz Institute for One Health (www.helmholtz-hioh.de), the Pan African Programme (www.panafrican.eva.mpg.de), and at the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation (www.wildchimps.org). Our thoughts are with his family, Hedwige, Lukas, Leonore, their partners and his grandchildren.


Written by Tobias Deschner, Roman Wittig, Catherine Crockford and Simone Pika


“Christophe Boesch, MPI EVAN director, primatologist and conservationist at what he loved the most: Tracking chimpanzees in their natural habitat in the Loango National Park, Gabon”

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