The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

Frans de Waal, Our First Symposium Speaker

Authored by Sydney Reed, M.S.W.

Frans de Waal, 75, Who Believed Apes Had Cognition, Dies so said the obituary by Alex Traub in the New York Times on Saturday, March 23, 2024.

“Frans de Waal, who used his study of the inner life of animals to build a powerful case that apes think, feel, strategize pass down culture and act on moral sentiments – and that humans are not quite as special as many like to think- died on March 14 at his home in Stone Mountain, Ga.”

Frans de Waal was our first symposium speaker 41 years ago when CFC began the Midwest Symposium.  Murray Bowen was also a key note speaker at that conference.  The obituary pointed out to me that many of de Waal’s beliefs about behavior in apes was congruent with Bowen’s thinking about behavior in humans and in all natural systems.  In his book, “Chimpanzee Politics” (1982) he used the term triad to describe the alliances that occur in the life of the chimps as they struggled to define their place in the group.    In all, he wrote 13 books including “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?” (2016) and “Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves” (2019) were both best sellers.

I will share several paragraphs from Traub’s obituary, which I found highlighted the similarities of the thinking of de Waal and Bowen:

“He saw the behavior of all sentient creatures, from crows to persons, existing on the same broad continuum of evolutionary adaptions.”

“Uniquely human emotions don’t exist,” he argues in a 2019 New York Times guest essay.  “Like organs, the emotions evolved over millions of years to serve essential functions.”

“His interest in what is shared across species, emotionally and morally, was kick-started in the mid-1970s, at the beginning of his career, when he saw one male chimpanzee raucously confront another, then calm down and extend his hand, palm up, in a peace offering.  The apes then embraced and groomed each other. “

Such observations inspired other books, “Peace Making Among Primates” (1989) and “Good Natured: The origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and other Animals” (1996) which are two of my favorites.

Alex Traub quotes from obituary continued:

“A common argument against his work was that he anthropomorphized nonhuman animals.  Professor de Waal replied that the real problem was not anthropomorphism—apes and humans have many commonalities justifying the comparison, with similar brains and psychological make up—but instead a human exceptionalism that rejected even the possibility of human like behavior in other animals as well as animal like traits in humans. He called this tendency ‘anthropodenial’.”

“For Professor de Waal, his critics were missing out on good news:  Morality turned out to be deeply rooted in our evolutionary past,” notes Traub.

“De Waal stated, ‘I’d argue that biology constitutes our greatest hope.’ He wrote in “The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society” (2009), ‘One can only shudder at the thought that the humaneness of our societies would depend on the whims of politics, culture or religion’.”

As we approach our 41st Annual Midwest Symposium this spring of 2024, prominent key note speakers and practitioners will again gather to continue the tradition of grounding Bowen theory in the latest research in the life sciences.  My colleagues and I will be thinking of the many contributions of Frans de Waal to this long history of productive dialogue between scientists and Bowen theorists.


Alex Traub, “Frans de Waal, Who Found the Origins of Morality in Apes, Dies at 75”. New York Times, March 23, 2024.

Sydey Reed


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