Bonobo Handshake by Vanessa Woods
When I ask people what they know about their closest primate cousin, the bonobo, they all say something to the effect; “Isn’t that the sexy little monkey I’ve heard about?”
First of all, bonobos are not monkeys; they are one of the five great apes, including orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees and humans. The average person cannot tell the difference between a chimp and a bonobo because they are physically similar although bonobos are smaller, and less muscular. They have black faces, pink lips and head hair parted in the middle. The main difference between the two apes lies in their behavior which is explained quite thoroughly in Bonobo Handshake.
Author Woods narrates her tale of love and tragedy as a researcher trying to save our closest cousin from ongoing African conflicts. Indigenous requirements for protein and income by Africans living near the few bonobo preserves and research centers threaten these fascinating apes that have developed their own solution to the ancient and tragic problem of personal and social conflict.
Woods falls in love and marries a dedicated bonobo researcher and eventually falls in love with the bonobos he cares for and studies. She endures the hardships and the ever-present tribal conflict and war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the 1990s. Her story is exciting and heart wrenching. It is a simple day by day narration of personal hardship, tragedy and love. Her story kept me interested and amazed.
The Bonobo Handshake is definitely not for everyone because bonobo behavior is “weird” by accepted human social standards and behavior. Simply put, bonobos resolve personal and group tension with sex. This behavior is not acquired in each generation by experience; rather it is in the DNA of these primates as evidenced by the sexual behavior of bonobo infants not yet socialized by adults. They crave sexual contact from their parents, their species and their human caregivers.
The author’s tale rambles along intermixed with her husband’s research challenges and the couple’s often tumultuous personal relationship. It is a story without a plot, a simple story similar to a research paper in places. I enjoyed it but I must admit other readers, without a long-term interest in animal behavior, may miss the underlying insinuation that bonobo social behavior has evolutionary origins and is not just a learned and solely convenient survival behavior.
I got more out of the book than adventure and heart aching tragedy. It seems to me that the unique bonobo behavior, unlike human behavior is governed more by evolution than by localized social/tribal custom. Similarly, gorilla and orangutan behavior evolved in accordance to their reproductive and survival needs. Violence, to them was, and still is, a quick way to resolve conflicts. Obviously, the same is even more true for chimpanzees. The several species of chimpanzees exhibit strikingly different behaviors than bonobos when it comes to conflict and tension resolution.
Chimps and humans are known by primatologists as the “killer apes.” Their communal living naturally brings on social conflict, unlike solitary orangutans and small gorilla family groups where conflict is limited to dominant males vying for leadership and females. Although bonobo populations are relatively peaceful, some conflict is inevitable in group living, but is resolved efficiently. Human societies are, all too often, emotionally violent like chimps or deliberately violent to achieve advantage regardless of suffering. Even with an abundance of natural resources and prescribed tribal taboos influencing and directing group behavior, humans have the natural tendency for violence when solving problems and acquiring influence.
Hunter-gatherer societies also warred with each other to demonstrate their tribal superiority. Survival was the ultimate reason to war, to plunder, take slaves and rape. Shamans always claimed approval of tribal deities and always justified violence, as religious texts describe in detail. It seems to be a natural and universal human behavior with very few exceptions. Violence justification among human populations is initiated and/or sanctioned by leaders fearful or covetous of neighbors.
Unlike chimps, humans have created laws that help resolve some of their problems. Nevertheless, these laws are often in flux and applied according to changing needs rather than as universal principals.
So, why are bonobos different? Why do bonobos routinely resort to sex to resolve tension and conflict rather than violence, as their primate cousin chimps so often do? Researchers are searching for answers to this question. One factor may be the homogeneous size and strengths of male and female bonobos. Large males cannot dominate. Females, that bear the brunt of exploitation and rape in chimp societies, usually ban together in bonobo societies and frustrate male attempts at dominance. No such relationship exists in gorilla family groups where a huge male totally dominates the group’s actions. Orangutans have little social interaction in the wild and huge dominant males always have their way.
Evolution seems to have devised different but equally successful methods of conflict resolution in the five species of great apes. In the absence of human intervention, each species has evolved unique solutions to life’s challenges. Humans, on the other hand, seem to employ any and every means of conflict resolution; violence, social tradition, laws or taboos, and occasionally sex. In the absence of the disparity of size and strength, or written law, bonobos successfully utilize sex for tension relief and distraction. While there are still squabbles in bonobo societies, sex is the great arbitrator and conflict solver.
It should be noted that sex with a reproductive objective is not consciously or intentionally part of the conflict resolution. Sexual play and pleasure does the job adequately. Infant bonobos, like adults, instinctively use cooperative sexual organ manipulation for pleasure to relieve tension and resolve disputes. As far as I know, this behavior is unique to bonobos but is, to a lesser extent, still significantly present in humans.
No longer can we attribute morality to supernatural personalities any more than we can claim a deity governs the behaviors of non-human animals. We cannot believe a deity prescribes bonobo tension relieving modalities any more than that deity prescribes and approves of chimpanzee and human atrocities. Chimpanzee atrocities, exist only in the minds of the observer or the thoughtless reader of this book. Divine laws are variable according to different species and specific societies. Basic human behavior, and bonobo behavior are the results of slow evolutionary revisions on a theme that works best for the survival of the species. Bonobos and chimps resolved their social problems naturally, each in their own way. Human social and personal conflict resolutions are more complex and confusing because the human mind interferes with or augments instinct. Humans seem to have evolved some of the same natural conflict resolution as do their cousin chimps and bonobos. Chimps and humans are notorious for inter-tribal warfare, murder, theft and rape. Bonobos have found a non-violent methodology to resolve tension.
In summary, The Bonobo Handshake presents no evidence of divinely commanded social and personal behavior in chimps, bonobos or humans. Perhaps it is time to give less significance to the myriad of religious laws restricting and commanding our behavior instead using reason and science. To me, The Bonobo Handshake should make readers aware of their DNA foundations. While our genome does not dictate our behavior as much as in our great ape cousins, it is useful in helping us understand our aggressive behavior and remember we are not far removed from our cousin apes.
In my mind, The Bonobo Handshake helps us understand human behavior as much as it does the violent behavior of chimps and the loving nature of our bonobo cousins. It’s a good read for those with open minds.