Our inner ape (Event 3-001, speaker: Frans B. M. de Waal)

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Any useful answer to the question of who we are as people depends on culture and context.  We can, however, find general answers to the question of who we are as primates.

Since another blogger already adeptly re-created this session, I won't make this this too long.  I'll just hit the highlights of lessons we can learn from these lovable other-than-humans: They have mirror neurons just like us (see Goleman, 2006).  They derive their sense of empathy from maternal care.  They exhibit gender differences in empathy and helping, but either gender will comfort or rescue someone in need or in pain.  They use mirrors to inspect their mouths.  Those on top of the heap can better afford to be generous, but one has to ask for help in the right way.  They slack off if they see someone else getting the same reward for less work or no work (de Waal: "this is the Wall Street protest right here").  Sometimes, they will even refuse rewards from an unfair system until they see justice done.  They observe a boundary between roughhousing and fighting.  (Dr. de Waal himself empathizes with this, having come from a family of six boys.)  When mom's watching, they're extra-careful to make it clear they're just playing.  When it gets too rough, someone breaks it up.  Finally, parents usually use distraction to extinguish undesirable behaviors.  Exposure to real social consequences is reserved for adolescents.

In human services in NYC, I've heard the uninformed argue that the behavior of people under social disorganization is according to the law of the jungle, something sub-human.  This is wrong on many levels.  Social disorganization and systemic oppression produce behavior distinctly different from that of Dr. de Waal's primates.  It is a uniquely human creation, stressing the organism in ways not found in nature.  We must all ask ourselves why we let it go on.