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US NEWS & World Report

On the Bookshelf: Finding our animal nature
Posted 9/19/05
By Betsy Querna

Frans de Waal wants to know about why people behave as they do. He's given this common question a fresh approach by studying the roots of human behavior through our closest primate cousins, the chimpanzee and the bonobo. His new book, Our Inner Ape, which comes out October 6, explores what we can learn from studying these apes. De Waal is a primatologist and professor in the psychology department at Emory University.

In what situations do you most often see primate behavior in humans?

Almost everywhere. As soon as you get into parenting behavior, politics, sex, eating, sharing food. There's no domain that you can mention where we don't see it. You see kids at the playground that are so much like a bunch of young chimps playing around. It's so ape-like. There's actually very few domains that are not primate-like.

Do you think that we've left our animal-side behind and become more civilized?

We can never leave our animal side behind. In terms of violent behavior and aggressive behavior, we have not gotten more civilized. Actually, the feeling is among most scientists that we're a more violent species than most animals.

It is true that if you were to have 10 million chimps in New York City, you would have a blood bath because chimps are very territorial. It is amazing to me that people can live together so closely like that. So, we are a violent society but the other side is that it could be much worse based on how we live. That's why I speak of us as the bipolar ape.

What do you mean the bipolar ape?

I think we have both the aggression of one of our closest relatives, chimpanzees, but we have a good amount of altruism, more like our other close cousin the bonobo. So I think we have both in us.

For example, our sexual behavior is very variable and that's more like the bonobos. We have many different positions and partners. We use sex for a number of different purposes. Most humans and bonobos have sex that has nothing to do with reproduction.

If we're so closely related to bonobos, why haven't they gotten more attention?

That's the interesting part. We have always looked at the chimpanzee and the chimp is very violent and very male dominated. And then the bonobo came along, and the bonobo doesn't fit the perceptions that we had about our ancestors and our nature. The bonobos are much sexier and female dominated. They're peaceful and they're more sensitive to others. The bonobo came along as sort of primate hippy and that did not fit in the thinking. Many anthropologists at the time thought that our ancestors were brutes, and so many of them ignored the bonobo.

Are there still misconceptions about how our ancestors have influenced human nature?

The public perception is that everything bad that we do comes from our animal side. As soon as we do something wonderful and nice, we call that our noble human nature. We call it humane and we claim that directly from us. That's the misconception. Yes, our bad side comes from nature, but our good side comes from there, too. Actually, some of the problems with people believing in evolution today have to do with that misconception. Apes are thought of as terrible, stupid, and funny and we don't want to be associated with them. But if you know them a little bit better, as I do, you know that there's nothing wrong with being associated with them.