Renowned Behavior Expert Set for Brain Awareness Month Event

Social scientist explores how morality evolved before humans developed religion

Renowned social behaviorist Frans de Waal discusses the surprising science of alpha males during a 2017 TEDMED presentation. Photo courtesy TEDMED

OXFORD, Miss. – Frans de Waal, a Dutch-American biologist and primatologist known worldwide for his work on the behavior and social intelligence of primates, is set to visit the University of Mississippi on March 4 to discuss “Morality before Religion: Empathy, Fairness and the Primate Brain.”

His lecture, free and open to the public, is set for 4 p.m. in Brevard Hall, Room 134. De Waal, an Emory University professor emeritus and renowned author, is slated to speak to faculty and students across disciplines as part of Brain Awareness Month programming.

The talk will review how empathy comes naturally to a variety of animals, including humans. De Waal argues that understanding empathy’s survival value in evolution can help to build a more just society based on a more accurate view of human nature.

“De Waal’s research on empathy supports the idea that morality – the sense of fairness – comes from biology and not from above; his work on primates is a great example of how neuroscience contributes to better understand human societies and is a perfect topic for the Brain Awareness campaign,” said Alberto del Arco, associate professor of health, exercise science and recreation management, and event organizer for Brain Awareness Month.

Editor-in-chief of the journal Behaviourde Waal was named one of Time magazine’s “Worlds’ 100 Most Influential People Today” in 2007 and one of Discover’s “Great Minds of Science” in 2011. His latest research concerns empathy and cooperation, inequity aversion and social cognition in chimpanzees, bonobos and other species.

De Waal and his students have pioneered studies on how behavior is culturally transmitted in primates, whether elephants recognize themselves in mirrors, how primates react to unequal reward divisions, how well primates spontaneously cooperate and whether bonobo orphans are as emotionally affected by their trauma as human orphans.

“We are thrilled to host Dr. Frans de Waal, a preeminent scientist recognized for his work in emotions and social behavior,” said Peter W. Grandjean, dean of the School of Applied Sciences. “By bringing Dr. de Waal to our great university, Dr. Del Arco and his colleagues demonstrate a passionate commitment to learning from the very best as they continue to unravel the vast complexities of brain function.”

Interested participants can join event organizers after the talk at Square Books, where de Waal will sign copies of his books, including his latest, “Mama’s Last Hug.”

De Waal’s visit is the first event of the Brain Awareness Month 2020. Staci Bilbo, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, is scheduled to discuss the relationship between the brain and the immune system at 4 p.m. Mar. 24, in Bryant Hall, Room 111.

Also, Ole Miss students can present their research during the Research Showcase organized by the neuroscience minor program.

Brain Awareness Month programming is sponsored by the School of Applied Sciences, the College of Liberal Arts’ neuroscience minor program, the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs and the Graduate School. For more information about the event, email del Arco at