Are we making a beastly mistake?
BETH PEARSON November 15 2005

 

THE HERALD

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 one.


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 resolve it."


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 on bonobos.
 
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 highly taboo.
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 6000 languages.

 

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