At Pioneer Works, the two met to investigate where man went wrong, and the misused excuses of biology for prejudices
“I didn’t sleep for two days—but two marvelous days,” Isabella Rossellini told her Instagram followers, beaming into the camera as she swiveled left and right to display the cityscape along the East River behind her. The beloved actor and animal behaviorist was unbothered by her lack of rest because she had occasion to keep awake: a conversation with primatologist Frans de Waal.
The two met onstage at Red Hook’s Pioneer Works to discuss de Waal’s latest book, Different: Gender Through the Eyes of a Primatologist. They’ve each carried reputations as educators around the more heartwarming emotional and behavioral similarities our species shares with primates. But the book—as aptly noted in its title—and de Waal and Rossellini’s subsequent conversation were more concerned with our differences with primates. Sure, man made central air-conditioning and craft cocktails and Instagram videos of widely-adored public figures, but alongside our evolutions are devolutions. Constructions of gender, for instance, as de Waal details, aren’t actually based in our biologies. Maybe chimpanzees haven’t developed hospitals, but they also haven’t obstructed care based on genitalia.
Such serious interrogations of the self, and humanity at large, require a sort of rumination, a reminder of just how small we are in the grand scheme of things. The conversation was followed by some stargazing in Pioneer Works’s garden, guided by the Amateur Astronomers Association. Alongside which—to ground a sense of hope and joy and community amidst societal reckonings—were offerings of Ethiopian eats from Makina Cafe.
While the future is ripe for imaginations of what we can become, so too is the past and the primal. The animal in us just might be a model for morality.