|Frans de Waal explains why he eats meat to Janine Abbring|
on Dutch television, August 20th 2017
28 sec video fragment with English subtitles (my translation).
Janine Abbring: But you do eat meat, isn't it?
Frans de Waal: Yes, but that is a completely different problem.
Janine Abbring: ???
Frans de Waal: In that respect I am too much a biologist ...
Janine Abbring: How can you think these two points have nothing to do with each other?
Frans de Waal: Everything in nature is subject to the cycle of life: animals eat animals, sometimes plants eat animals, when we are dead, we are eaten by animals, ...
I find his meat eating habit completely unexpected and his subsequent defence very disappointing. First, he keeps eating meat in full knowledge of the deplorable situation of the millions and billions of animals in the meat industry. How can this be? If you know something is bad, a morally acting person stops doing it, or at least does everything in his power to stop doing it. His remarks about people being ready to eat less meat contributes even more to the confusion. He himself is not ready?
Second, he gives a naive and since long discredited defence for his meat eating habit. He calls it 'the natural cycle of life': in nature animals eat animals, we are being consumed by worms after our death, etc. But this clearly is a form of the naturalistic fallacy. Nobody denies the existence of carnivores in nature, but we cannot derive moral values from that fact. The argument is equivalent with: "I eat meat because lions eat meat". He could have easily taken his beloved chimps as a moral example, because they are omnivores just like us and are evolutionary closer to us than lions. Chimps and bonobo's do eat meat occasionally ,. But formulated as "I eat meat because chimps do" makes the naivety of the whole idea perfectly clear, and so is the whole 'natural cycle of life' idea . It amounts to "nature red in tooth and claw", the very principle he vigorously opposed in his book The Age of Empathy .
There is another problem with his argument. If meat eating is natural, then reducing meat consumption is unnatural. How does he derive reducing meat consumption from 'the natural life cycle'?.
The most intellectually disturbing fact is that he knows the "is/ought distinction" in his book The Bonobo and the Atheist . He knows that the naturalistic fallacy is a fallacy or at least that it is very problematic.
|The age of empathy?|
Nature's Lessons for a kinder society?
Third, on Dutch television he told he eats animals, but in his books De Waal never told his readers he does so. Now, one could argue that it is a personal matter and not our business at all. However, his books are not neutral scientific reports about animal behavior. On the contrary. He explains we live in the age of empathy and teaches us 'Lessons For A Kinder Society'. In The Age of Empathy he writes about himself: "Empathy is my bread and butter", describes himself as an animal lover: "I love and respect animals", and: "In my own research, I avoid causing pain or deprivation". In an interview  he tells us: "I myself have never done any invasive studies in chimps". In an essay in Nature he writes: "people systematically underestimate animals" . In 'The Bonobo and the Atheist' he teaches: "Everything science has learned in the past few decades argues against this pessimistic view that morality is a thin veneer over a nasty human nature." .
Apart form his personal views, his science was never disinterested academic research to be published in scientific journals only. He broke old scientific taboos by attributing traditionally human qualities to animals, such as "empathy", "sympathy", "altruism", "consolation", "fairness", "conflict resolution", "peacemaking" and by giving names to individual animals; he is against emphasis on the nasty side of nature, selfishness, aggression, conflict, competition. Please note all these topics have to do with the social life and morality. Morality shows up in book titles: Good Natured. The Origins of Right and Wrong' and: Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. In other words: all his books are in fact about morality. And that is not morality in a purely descriptive way. He wants us to learn from animals. Not just anything, but moral lessons.
So, knowing his personal and scientific background, the kind of books he writes, the message he wants to convey to the world, the way he is portrayed by scientific journals (for example by PNAS), it is deeply disturbing that he admits eating animals. How can he be serious about a kinder society? Doesn't he include the animals he eats in his society? He practices a double standard: Chimp Haven, and Hell for the animals he eats. He knows the meat industry is a hell for animals, he blames the meat industry for not being friendly to animals, but he takes no responsibility for his own actions. Here the 'nasty human nature' comes to the surface. His critique of the meat industry is not serious. What did he learn from his lifelong study of animals? He preaches empathy and sympathy for animals, but he practices killing animals. If anybody in the world is expected to be a vegetarian, it would be Frans de Waal. Just like Jane Goodall he should be on the list of famous vegetarians. TIME magazine honored him with the title "the 100 men and women whose power, talent or moral example is transforming the world". Sadly, he is not a moral example. He could be a very influential moral example when he practices what he preaches: admit that his defense of eating meat was wrong and become a vegetarian. He should condemn the meat industry in certain terms based on knowledge and facts and take action accordingly. Further, as a scientist he should encourage the study of the natural behavior of the animals we eat, including empathy, just as he studied apes, monkeys and elephants ,. I am suggesting this title for his next book: "Confessions of a leading primatologist".
His remarks in the New York Times about fish and vegans
(added: 25 Oct 2017)
Frans de Waal: "Of course, vegans don’t want to hear that story!"
Kate Murphy interviewed Frans de Waal in the New York Times (July 30, 2016). De Waal succeeded to insult vegans ("Of course, vegans don’t want to hear that story" ); claims to respect fish but at the same time eats them; and "draws the line at primates". ("So I have gained a lot of respect for fish. Yes, I do eat fish. I draw the line at primates"). How can you eat and respect fish at the same time? Explain that!
Especially his jab at vegans is vicious and nonsensical. He bases his attack on the book The Hidden Life of Trees: What they Feel, How they Communicate' and seems to imply that vegans are hypocrites and should stop eating trees (and maybe all plants?). This 'critique' is nonsensical because plants don't have a central nervous system and can't feel pain like animals. In fact he is the real hypocrite because he eats plants and very likely has wooden furniture in his house, which also contains many wooden doors. Additionally, he eats all those animals that can 'feel and communicate'.
Furthermore, since he 'draws the line at primates', he does not exclude eating dolphins, elephants, dogs, cats, octopuses, crows and Grey parrots, to name a few intelligent animals that certainly can feel pain and communicate. Please, explain that. Apparently, de Waal did not even begin to think systematically about 'drawing the line'.
26 Oct 2017 small text updates
10 Nov 2017: note 10 added
- "They're far more carnivorous than was once thought. They eat over thirty-five different species of vertebrates." p.137 Our Inner Ape, paperback 2005.
- In fact any claim that meat is a necessary component in the human diet is refuted by millions of vegetarians world-wide. But this is a different subject.
- The Bonobo and the Atheist, chapter 6, paragraph 'When "Is" meets "Ought", page 162-165. It is however a somewhat muddled discussion. It should not be confused with the claim that many of the building blocks of morality have an evolutionary origin which is a scientifically sound claim. The expression "morality grounded in biology" is confusing, because it suggest a morality is founded on biology, which is impossible.
- I wonder whether Frans de Waal gives his chimpanzees in the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta occasionally meat. If not, that is a perfect proof that our closest relatives don't need meat to live a healthy life. [added 12 Oct 2017]
- He made similar remarks at PLOS blogs: "But I do feel there is a general trend in society, in the public, and scientists need to pay attention to that, of taking animals more seriously than we used to. And this may also have an effect in the agricultural industry, on how we treat agricultural animals, which is a much larger number than research animals, actually, and so it may have effects everywhere, effects on the ethics of how we treat animals, and this will probably also affect the biomedical community." Should Chimpanzees Have Moral Standing? An Interview with Frans de Waal, March 27, 2012. (Again not mentioning he eats meat!) [added: 12 Oct 2017]
- Added 13 Oct 17. See also: Survival of the Kindest: In his new book, The Age of Empathy, Frans de Waal outlines an alternative to “Nature, red in tooth and claw.”, Seed Magazine, originally published September 24, 2009
- Frans de Waal (2009) 'Darwin's last laugh', Nature 9 July 2009. Full quote: "The opposite approach of anthropodenial – the a priori rejection of continuity between humans and other animals – has led people to systematically underestimate animals". [added 17 Oct 17]
- Frans de Waal (2013) The bonobo and the atheist: In search of humanism among the primates. New York: W.W. Norton. [added 26 Oct 2017]
- This has already been done by others but completely ignored by Frans de Waal. Example: Thinking Pigs: A Comparative Review of Cognition, Emotion, and Personality in Sus domesticus, International Journal of Comparative Psychologie, 2015 [added 21 Oct 2017]
- Sheep recognize familiar and unfamiliar human faces from two-dimensional images, 8 November 2017. Royal Society Open Science. Conclusion: "Together these data show that sheep have advanced face-recognition abilities, comparable with those of humans and non-human primates." [GK: this shows the intellectual capacities of an animal we kill and eat!]
A previous version of this blog appeared in Dutch on 12 September 2017.