Our Inner Ape OR I Like Bonobos and You Should, Too

24 07 2007

I wasn’t having a particularly good day yesterday (hence the lack of posting), but I did receive three Journal of Mammalogy issues (it’s nice that they caught me up so fast) and Franz de Waal’s Our Inner Ape. I didn’t particularly feel like going through Survival of the Sickest like I had planned, so I cracked open de Waal’s book and I’m now halfway through it. Much like many other primate-oriented books I’ve read recently, this is a popular work, treading light on science and dealing more with overall behavioral observations. Not that this is a bad thing (I think behavior, especially in captivity, is often overlooked), but if you’re looking for a rigorous treatise of ape and human evolution/relatedness, it would be best to look elsewhere.

As I read the first chapter (and bits of other chapters) aloud to my wife, she noted how enamored de Waal is with the Bonobo, Pan paniscus. While de Waal does make it clear that chimpanzee and bonobo behavior are more complex than one being “good” (the bonobo) and the other “bad” (chimpanzees), his affections and praise primarily fall upon the bonobos. This probably stems not only from de Waal’s own work with them but the overall ignorance surrounding them; as de Waal points out, everyone is familiar with chimps, but few seem to be familiar with bonobos. They also suit de Waal’s purpose in combating some evolutionary psychology/biological determinism as evidenced in books like The Selfish Gene or Demonic Males. While chimps are often used to show that we had brutal, combative ancestors, de Waal hopes the bonobo will reflect our better nature. While he does have a point, that we are not pre-programmed bundles of genes or behaviors nor are we special creations disconnected from our past, de Waal does not always make the best arguments. Case in point; in discussing homosexuality de Waal points to other cultures where homosexuality is prevalent or even accepted, but his examples primarily focus on cultures that introduce children to homosexuality. None of the examples feature a mixed society where some members are gay and others not, but rather that young men and women have to go through homosexual “rites of passage” before becoming adults in the society. I’m not enough of a moral relativist to simply say “Oh, good for them. They’re an accepting society,” and it made me think more of child abuse than of openness to diversity. I do not know enough about any of the groups de Waal mentions to make any definitive judgments, but his examples of young boys that must “live sexually” with an older male until they become men did not support his case.

Oddly enough, Jonah of The Frontal Cortex has just posted about a new New Yorker article about bonobos, focusing on how they’ve essentially been marketed as the kinder, gentler, and more feminist chimpanzees. While de Waal mentions aggression amongst bonobos in his book, the peaceful nature of the apes is what takes the forefront, and at times the book feels like a PR campaign to make us vote for bonobos as if some election for which closest living ape relative was taking place. At the same time, however, it’s easy to just repackage bonobos as another male-dominant ape species where instead of competing with females, males stand aside (de Waal scoffs at this “chivalrous” method, and I think rightly so). As in many issues, the truth of the matter probably lies somewhere in the middle of the two positions that are becoming more and more polarized, and more observation of bonobos in the wild are going to be needed if we’re really going to understand their significance to us. I don’t believe apes are wholly aggressive, nor are they wholly peaceful and loving, each species seemingly working on its own continuum to meet different needs. In fact, I think chimpanzees and bonobos are a good example of evolution working on the same animal to produce different behavioral and physical adaptations, showing that there is not some kind of evolutionary determinism (else chimps and bonobos would be the same and no distinctions could be made). For now, however, bonobos will probably remain more symbols for peace and “free love” more than anything else, and I have to wonder how many of the people that champion them (like the hippies in the New Yorker article) really know anything about them.

Update: Oh, and lest I forget, de Waal has a new article available for free through PLoS Biology, too (although I haven’t had the chance to read it yet).


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3 responses

24 07 2007
Micky

About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 2004, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages. God LOVES me so much. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17]. I have recovered my INNER CHILD who I abandoned many years ago – that CHILD is GOD!
PEACE BE WITH YOU
MICKY

27 09 2008
Joe

speaking of apeshit

9 09 2011
Zachariah Canning

Useful question

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