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).