Monday, May 23, 2011

Our other cousin

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, apes, natural history, memoirs

Can you tell which of these is the real Chimpanzee? The one on the right is a Bonobo. These were once called "Pygmy Chimpanzees", but now they are recognized as a separate species, particularly because of very different behavior. But the simplest clue is that a Bonobo has much nicer hair, parted in the middle and often kept smoothed down on purpose.

An adult Bonobo is also a little smaller on average than an adult Chimpanzee, though either ape is larger as an adult than most of us imagine. The performing chimps we see in the movies are seldom more than five years old, a little shy of puberty, similar in development to a ten-year-old human. By age six or seven, an adult Chimpanzee, male or female, can stand about five feet tall (1.5 m), is stronger than the strongest human and is much more impulsive, making them much too dangerous to allow free human contact. A Bonobo is equally strong, if a little more placid in temperament.

The Bonobo is the fourth great ape. Gorillas have their Dian Fossey, Chimpanzees their Jane Goodall, and Orangutans their Biruté Galdikas. Who speaks for the Bonobo? It just might be Claudine Andre of Lola ya Bonobo (Paradise for Bonobos), a sanctuary for Bonobos orphaned by the bush meat and "pet" trade. If only she would publish, if even a memoir. For now, we must content ourselves with Vanessa Wood's book Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo.

Bonobos turn out to be much more like our rose-colored fantasy of Chimpanzees than do chimps themselves. Compared with chimps, Bonobos are more altruistic, tolerant of new acquaintances (rather than ready to kill at first eye contact), female dominated, and they prefer to resolve conflict with sex all around. Indeed, they are such sexual apes that much of the book is rather embarrassing, with a hint in the back of a reader's mind of, "If only people were more like that…".

The book is roughly half about the apes and half about the author and her husband, Brian Hare. Now both scientists in North Carolina, they teamed up and followed Bruce Tuckman's model of group development: Forming, Storming, Norming, with the emphasis on Storming. She is flint-eyed clear in portraying herself, warts and all, as moody, needy, a daydreamer, but also loving, persistent, and prone to trust (often after some more storming).

Quite against her better judgment, she and her husband (fiancĂ© at first) Brian find themselves in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, because "that's where the Bonobos are," and Brian wants to study them, particularly how they differ from chimps. As it happens, Bonobos are suspicious of human males, so Brian Hare's scientific testing must rely on Vanessa to do things like measure ear canal temperatures and get saliva samples. Should you decide to read his scientific publications—there are a lot of them—just remember it was Vanessa who did all the hands-on work with the apes!

The title of the book is a bit of fun at the reader's expense. When you first meet a Bonobo, if he or she decides to befriend you, you'll be presented with a penis or clitoris to rub, and the friendship will proceed no further until you do so. This is the Bonobo handshake! Fortunately, they aren't too concerned if you don't present yours. They'd rather just hug or groom, particularly the younger ones. This is a big contrast to meeting a new Chimpanzee, whose first thought is whether to dominate you or submit to you (with great reluctance): somebody is going to get a beating either way. Unless the chimp is a newly orphaned infant, in which case it will cling to anyone that is available, until about age three, when dominance games begin. No human has successfully dominated an adult chimp. Nobody needs to dominate a Bonobo. They'd truly rather make love than war.

Interestingly, the full spectrum of both Chimpanzee and Bonobo reactions is seen in humans and human societies. As the author explains, when the hominids first split off from the apes about six million years ago, three branches resulted, the Chimpanzees, the Bonobos, and the genus Homo (originally Australopithecus). Humans share a middle ground of temperament with both kinds of apes, with an added fillip of cooperation that is seen primarily in Bonobos. Chimps will share food only with a trusted associate; Bonobos share freely. Based partly on upbringing and partly on something inborn, most people are more prone to sharing, but some are not (I know a younger man whom I first knew as a little child: pathologically selfish, he was evil as a child and has spent most of the last thirty years in jail or prison, all in spite of a "good Christian upbringing" and an older brother who is almost his total opposite. Sometimes nature trumps nurture).

There are so many facets to the book that I must simply leave the rest for the reader. It is a fascinating account of a fascinating near relative of ours, one that deserves to be known better. The work of Claudine Andre is remarkable in the midst of a war-torn country, one that is still being plundered for its mineral wealth when not in the midst of civil war. As the author and her husband continue their work with Lola ya Bonobo, I hope the publications continue, and perhaps a newer memoir as more is learned.

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