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Primatologist Frans de Waal weighs in on Harambe

Wednesday, June 08, 2016 - 10:47 AM

Where does our sense of right and wrong come from?

We tackled this question in our show, “Morality”. In the episode, Dr. Frans de Waal, a primatologist and biologist, argues that sharing and empathy probably come from our primate ancestors. After all, you can see these qualities in apes today. He points to the famous 1996 example, when a 3-year-old boy fell into the gorilla enclosure at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo. Binti Jua, a female western lowland Gorilla, then 8 years old, scooped up the unconscious boy, cradled him, and then safely returned him to handlers waiting at the doors of the enclosure.

“The media made a big deal of it,” Frans says in the episode, “but actually the response of the gorilla for the boy who had fallen in was a very common typical ape response.”

Last week, an eerily similar event occurred at the Cincinnati Zoo...this time without the storybook ending. The 4-year-old boy who found himself inside the enclosure survived, but Harambe, the silverback male gorilla, did not.  

Frans was tapped by Alternet, the online news magazine, to comment on yet another moral quandary: the zookeepers’ decision to shoot Harambe. You can read how Frans weighs in on these recent events here


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Comments [12]

weird person

I agree with you!!

Feb. 22 2018 10:07 PM
bob from someplace

justice for Harambe

Jan. 08 2018 06:33 PM
Brad from Anywhere people aren't

OK. I thought about this long ago and figured out the obvious truth that everyone involved seems to feel but not recognize. By pushing someone in front of a train you elicit doubt in the form of 'maybe it will work and maybe it won't' as opposed to pulling the lever almost certainly will cause the train to switch tracks. There that wasn't so complicated.

Feb. 21 2017 03:54 AM

im fine with whatever so long as nobody releases harambe's gamertag

Aug. 24 2016 05:42 PM

Here is a crazy idea. How about putting up a little fence so children can not climb into the Gorilla enclosure. If a person falls on the wet floor in a casino, it is the casino's fault for not taking preventive measures. How is this any different? It is reasonable for the parents to assume that even if the 2 year old wanted to climb into the Gorilla enclosure, it is impossible for him to do so because this is a location which gets many kids and should be safe for them.

Jul. 27 2016 04:05 PM

Regarding Frans' response to Harambe, the blip added at the end about the full video feels inadequate. I agreed with the zoo's decision before seeing the full video, but if you watch that one, it is horrifying. I watched to the point the boy is dragged through the water at such speed and had to stop. Yes, still a terrible situation all around, but I can't understand how anyone could see that and still think the zoo could have chosen any differently.

Jul. 06 2016 11:27 AM
Jenna from Durham, NC

I liked this commentary up until the point where the author blamed the parents for inattentiveness and suggested the readers should join a petition to "hold the parents accountable" as if they weren't already well aware of the consequences of losing hold of their child at the zoo. Anyone with a toddler can attest to their wicked-fast and precocious natures. It takes a mere second for a little one to escape the hand of a perfectly responsible parent. As a parent, I am simply thankful the precociousness of my little one has not resulted in tragedy, but I am under no illusions that it can't happen to me or any other parent.

Jun. 23 2016 11:18 AM
Katharine F Layton from Fort Valley, VA

I am far more comfortable pulling a lever to save lives than killing someone directly to then save lives. Even though the numbers of the killed and saved would be the same, the headlines in my brain may be,"Woman pulls lever to save 5 people" vs "Woman pushes man to his death to save 5 others". Indirect vs direct. As for the killing of Harambe, I am convinced that Harambe meant the boy no harm, and if the crowd had been removed and quiet/calm restored, the boy could have been retrieved with fewer and certainly no more injuries than he sustained. The hysterical crowd confused and agitated Harambe. I would like for all zoo personnel to be trained to immediately quiet and clear the area in any delicate situation such as this one. Yes, it is easier with hindsight than in the moment but we can learn much from this tragedy.

Jun. 19 2016 08:11 PM
William from Kansas City

Wouldn't any action necessitate that the observer would then become complicit in the death of at least one individual? Is inaction the same as taking a personal action?

Jun. 17 2016 02:08 PM
Rsillen from San diego

Marina- thanx for your response. I agree entirely with you. I just don't understand the moral difference. I get the reason why one would choose one method over another but I don't think there is any moral difference, just comfort.

Jun. 12 2016 12:42 PM
Marina from Riverside, CA

I view the difference being that when you pull the lever, even though you're still choosing to kill 1 over 5, it's less direct a feeling than you physically touching and pushing the big man off of the bridge. When pulling the lever its the cart on the tracks which actually kills the 1 person allowing our conscious to be relieved of direct and saitible regret. Would the answer be different if the questions reversed?

Jun. 11 2016 07:06 PM
Robert Sillen from San Diego

Fascinating program but... I don't understand the distinction, morally, between pulling the lever or pushing the man onto the tracks. I get the brain differences but aren't the actions morally equivalent. Only the methodology differs. In the examples given I see no moral differences just what one feels better about doing. Empathy is not, is it, morality? Thank you.

Jun. 11 2016 02:53 PM

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