University of North Dakota Faculty/Staff Newsletter

Noted primatologist to lecture April 30 in Fargo on biological origins of morality

Feeling and showing empathy are not exclusive to humans. Animals, such as monkeys, apes and elephants, demonstrate compassion too, according to noted Dutch/American biologist Frans de Waal. For example, during a fight, these animals will go to another’s aid. After an attack, they will put an arm around the victim.

De Waal will show how empathy comes naturally to a variety of animals, including humans, during NDSU’s seventh annual Community Lecture. “The Bonobo and the Atheist: Morality, Religion, and Prosocial Primates” is scheduled for Tuesday, April 30, at 7 p.m. at the Fargo Theatre in downtown Fargo. The presentation is free and open to the public.

“By studying social behavior in animals, such as bonding and alliances, expressions of consolation, conflict resolution and a sense of fairness, I will demonstrate that animals –and humans – are preprogrammed to reach out, questioning the assumption that humans are inherently selfish,” De Waal said. “Understanding empathy's survival value in evolution can help to build a more just society based on a more accurate view of human nature. Religion may add to a moral society, but as an addition and way to enforce good behavior, rather than as its source.”

De Waal, a C. H. Candler Professor and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes Primate Center at Emory University in Atlanta, is known for his work on the social intelligence of primates. In 2007, he was selected by Time as one of The Worlds’ 100 Most Influential People Today, and in 2011 by Discover as one of 47 all-time Great Minds of Science.

The NDSU Colleges of Science and Mathematics and Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences are co-sponsoring the public lecture. The series aims to introduce nationally recognized scientists to the broader community. Through the years, presenters have explained their science in ways various age groups, from junior high students to older adults engaged in life-long learning, can understand and appreciate.