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Bonobo, The Forgotten Ape (review)

Bonobo, The Forgotten Ape: Franz De Waal & Frans Lanting, University of California Press, 1997, ISBN 0-520-20535-9


Bonobo chimpanzees are fashionable these days. It is a mark of their cachet that a coffee table book has been dedicated to them. This book is definitely a coffee table book. It is outsized, has well written text in a popular style, and a large number of stunning photos.

There is one problem with it as a coffee table book. If you have small children and you leave it about you had best be comfortable about answering explicit questions about the birds and the bees or in this case, about the sex life of the chimpanzee. We are talking serious chimp smut here. Consider it as an alternative to _Our Bodies, Ourselves for Six Year Olds_.

It wasn't until fairly recently that it was even realized that there was more than one species of chimpanzee. It has only been in the last couple of decades that serious studies of chimpanzee social behaviour have been undertaken. These studies have been illuminating and disconcerting.

There had a belief, expressed in tones both of sorrow and pride, that humans were uniquely damned as killer apes, unique in their savagery and their prediliction for warfare. (Ants can be conveniently explained away as being insects and therefore not counting.) Alas for the pride of the damned - the common chimpanzee shares the ignoble traits of his (and here "his" is the appropriate pronoun) human cousins. Our cousins are tool users who engage in internecine warfare from time to time, machiavellian politics, and various other unlovely forms of behaviour that we thought were the exclusive preserve of homo sapiens.

The doyens of pop exposition of the biological origins of human nature beat their drums. True, we are not unique, but we are killer apes. It runs in the family, so to speak. Patriarchy, warfare, greed, politics, they are all in our genes. Alas for determinism. Our other cousin is a firm practioner of the "make love, not war" approach to life. It was the fashion among pop expositors to count us as a uniquely sexy species. It turns out that we are quite staid and sedate in our ways.

Heterosexual sex, female homosexuality, male homosexuality, oral-genital sex, mutual masturbation, even deep-tongue kissing, they do it all - frequently. With enthusiasm. It's part of their social repertoire. Are things getting tense? Make love and relax. Even more disturbing for those who would ground "the way things are" in biological determinism, our kissing cousins (and kiss they do) have a female dominant social structure. Horrors and gee-willikers.

As a filip for the vegetarians it is worth noting that bonobos eat very little meat compared to the common chimpanzee, who is an enthusiastic hunter when he gets the chance.

Fashionable indeed. What better role model for the latest styles in social engineering could one ask for? (Are there bonobo clubs among our young wherein our cousins life-style is emulated. I expect so.) Perhaps, however, one should not rush to quickly to judgement. We are not, after all, either common chimpanzees or bonobos. If biology has more to say to about our behaviour than we might like to admit it is also true that the possible variations are probably greater than we imagine.

Franz De Waal is an honest scientist. If he tantalizes us with the current theories about the hows and whys of the different modes of sociality and sexuality of our cousins, he also is careful to point out the objections to these theories and their speculative nature.

As I said, this is a coffee table book. The photography by Frans Lanting is truly magnificent.

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