Biologist and animal
behaviourist Frans de Waal is quick to translate human experience into
broader primate terms.
"A chimp would not tolerate this schedule," he
says cheerfully, having flown in from Atlanta, Georgia, to begin a demanding
publicity tour for his new book, Our Inner Ape.
What de Waal is demonstrating – tolerance
in the face of interviews, lectures, book signings and chaired discussions
– indicates an easy-going, peace-keeping nature more associated
with bonobos. Both common chimpanzees and bonobos – the two species
of chimpanzee constituting the genus Pan – share near-identical
DNA with humans. De Waal is interested in how this animal inheritance
is manifested in human behaviour.
The consequences of this are profound. Our ideas
about what constitutes our nature and what is cultural go to the heart
of how we see ourselves as individuals and a species. People commonly
refer to their capacity for cruelty, selfishness and violence as "animalistic"
and that for kindness and being peaceable as "humane". This assumption,
de Waal thinks, is in part due to ignorance of the bonobo, which was discovered
in 1933 but not studied in the wild or captivity until the mid-1970s.
"All the evolutionary scenarios you see on the
human species take the chimp as the model, with the result that we are
always emphasising aggression, dominance and territoriality," says de
Waal, professor of primate behaviour at Emory University, Georgia. "There
was maybe a logical point after the Second World War, when humans had
shown so much aggression that we focused on these things. But now we know
the bonobo is an equally close relative, there's no excuse for focusing
on the chimpanzee."
Indeed, the chimp and bonobo could barely be
more different. Chimps are known for being aggressive, patriarchal and
infanticidal, while bonobos are peaceful, matriarchal and quickly convert
a potential conflict into an opportunity for bonding, through sex.
"Imagine if we never knew the chimp and knew
only the bonobo," suggests de Waal. "There are never any killing reports
by bonobos. Their inter-community relations are very relaxed and they
resolve issues with sex. If we knew only bonobos we would have come up
with a completely different story about our evolution."
The alternative evolutionary psychology de Waal
suggests is that humans are simply and confusingly bi-polar mammals: they
are capable of both good and bad. The spectrum is well exemplified by
how chimps, bonobos and humans have evolved to deal with infanticide.
It is well documented that male chimps kill young
offspring of which they are not the father so the mother will become fertile
again more quickly and can be fertilised by the infanticidal chimp.
Bonobos and humans do not use infanticide in
this way, but for very different reasons.
"For males to be involved in the care of offspring,
evolutionarily speaking, requires them to have some certainty about whose
offspring it is," says de Waal. "Bonobo females have defused the whole
issue by having sex with everybody.
"First, they are collectively dominant against
the males, which helps the protection of their offspring. Secondly, they
have confused paternity to the point no male can exclude the possibility
a young bonobo is his offspring.
"What humans have done is the opposite: we have
increased certainty of paternity by creating family relationships and
surrounding them with moral protections such as fidelity."
But there are similarities. Take chimps and businessmen.
"Although the male chimp is a very aggressive creature, it has very effective
ways of controlling that aggression," says de Waal.
"I always compare them to men in a corporation.
"There's an enormous amount of competition among
them – with chimps, it's sex and power, with men, it's who gets
the parking spot and stuff like that – but at the same time, they
can't afford to have all that competition get out of control. They need
to stay united."
"Which is why golf exists," I interject.
"Golf?" says de Waal. "Is that why you invented
golf? Because your males are so competitive?"
De Waal may have an insight into this question
himself, as he works closely with the Scottish Primate Research Group
in St Andrews. Scotland could soon be home to a first-class study centre
that will support the work of the Scottish Primate Research Group.
The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland has
secured planning permission for the Budongo Project, to be built at Edinburgh
Zoo. The facility will be a research centre and visitor attraction in
It is intended the Budongo Project (named after
a forest in Uganda where the group has conducted research) will complement
the Living Links to Human Evolution Study Centre, which is due to open
at the zoo next year.
Professor Andrew Whiten, of the psychology department
at the University of St Andrews, is a member of the group. "We're leading
the zoos of the world in trying to do this," he says. "Primatologists
will work as visitors watch, thereby giving a unique insight into finding
out about our primate relatives."
It's unlikely golf-as-conflict- resolution will
be a research priority. It is, at any rate, sensible to keep in check
any comparisons between humans and their chimpanzee cousins as there may
never be an answer to one of the big questions in primatology.
"The big debate is not whether we are closer
to bonobos or chimps," says de Waal, "but whether the last common ancestor
of humans and chimpanzees was more chimp-like or bonobo-like. We can't
The only possibility for resolution is genetic
material. For instance, recent research published in the journal Science
discussed a sequence of DNA that humans and bonobos share but chimps don't.
That DNA plays a role in affiliation and bonding, which has led to speculation
the last common ancestor was more bonobo-like.
People are often surprised by the abilities of
chimps (by far the major focus of research studies, since the bonobo home
is in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo). De Waal, however,
thinks we should expect similarities.
"Basically, everything you do, chimps can do,"
he says, "except for language and other things related to abstract thinking.
But in terms of the basic social, emotional psychology, there's nothing
a chimp does that we don't do. The same is true for bonobos, I think."
Yet the fact those working outside zoology tend
to under-estimate chimp abilities, coupled with the human enjoyment that
can be had by ridiculing other primates (consider the PG Tips advert),
indicates to de Waal we are uncomfortable with the profound similarities
between us. He calls this "anthropodenial", which preserves the comforting
belief humans are unique in the animal kingdom.
But as it becomes increasingly clear that humans
share many defining characteristics, not to mention the lion's share of
DNA, with other species, there's an accompanying obligation to extend
our "humane" kindness to ensure the preservation
of those species.
"The main issue for the apes is survival," says
de Waal. "We're removing their habitats and the prediction is that by
2040 there may be nothing left for them except for a few sanctuaries."
Our Inner Ape: The Best and Worst of Human
Nature, by Frans de Waal is published by Granta, priced £17.99.
How FAR we ape each other
Common chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes
Gender relations: Patriarchal society. Each chimp
family is headed by an alpha male. Competition to father babies is intense
and leads to infanticide, as killing an infant chimp means its mother
will become fertile again sooner.
Sex: Like grooming, important for social bonding,
but not to the extent of the bonobo. As with bonobos, mothers engage in
sexual activity with their young for the purpose of bonding.
Violence: Jane Goodall's reports of chimps violently
killing colobus monkeys shocked the world in the 1970s. Violence varies
from region to region. Chimps kill other chimps, often during "border
patrols" when they find a lone male from a different territorial group
– but don't eat other adults.
Communication: Chimps cannot talk because their
vocal cords are located higher than in humans and so cannot be controlled
as well. The innatist theory of language, proposed by Noam Chomsky, suggests
chimps may not be able to speak but do have the intellectual capacity
for grammar. Well-known chimps in captivity use sign language.
Bonobo or pygmy chimpanzee, Pan paniscus
Gender relations: Bonobo societies are egalitarian
and collectively headed by females. Females mate with many males to confuse
paternity and thereby eliminate infanticide.
Conflict: Conflicts can very quickly be resolved
through sex, including homosexual sex. Very little violence has been recorded.
Sex: Used for making and strength-ening social
bonds as well as reproduction.
Communication: These abilities are likely to
be the same as that of chimps; however, much less research has been conducted
Human, Homo sapiens
Gender relations: Traditionally patriarchal (though
some believe a female-headed society may once have existed). The bond
between men and women is strengthened by social constructs such as marriage,
which stigmatises infidelity.
Sex: Recreational, procreational and used for
bonding. In most cultures, sex with juveniles and incest is illegal and
Violence: Frequently participate in wars. Instances
of torture, mass murder, cannibalism and infanticide, all of which are
regarded in most cultures as morally wrong.
Communication: Humans speak and write in almost
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