A Vegetarian Journal for Quakers and Other People of Faith


Review: Our Inner Ape


Our Inner Ape. By Frans de Waal. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005. 274 pages, $24.95 USD


We know that violence afflicts us at every level of existence: from the individual act to war, which is murder on a large scale. What is its origin, its causes? How can it be prevented, contained, defused, resolved?


One very useful approach to finding answers, claims de Waal, is to study how it occurs among our near cousins, the champanzees, and how it is generally avoided among our equally closely related siblings, the bonobos.


The bonobos have been called the wonder of the sentient world. They are unquestionably akin to humans and to the chimps, as anyone can see at a glance (the bonobos in the photographs between pages 258 and 259 look uncannily like Australopithecines), and as DNA studies confirm: the three species share 95 or 96 percent of their basic genetic material. It would be more accurate to call the bonobo Homo arboreus than Pan pygmaius. However, the bonobos, unlike chimps and humans, have solved the problem of violence: conflicts and disagreements occur, but they are resolved before they degenerate into murders and warfare.


It is tempting to believe this is because they have Peaceful Gene that we lack. Professor de Waal acknowledges that the fact that males and females are nearly equal in size is an important factor, but he thinks the crux of the matter is environmental: bonobos live in an area rich with vegetable nourishment, so the females do not have to move far from each other to find food. Therefore, they are able to form groups large enough to keep aggressive males in line. This is just as beneficial to said males it is is to the females and infants: they are liberated from the politics of conspiracy and betrayal, macho posturing, bullying, and the like, that cruelly fill the lives of so many male chimps and humans. ("There is no pre-eminence of a man above a beast.") Males and females alike can instead put their time to better use in eating, loving and playing. It must be acknowledged that bonobo loving has a decidedly erotic cast; bonobos would feel comfortable with the slogan of the 'sixties, "Make love, not war."


Bonobo females are natural-born Lysistratas, whose chimp and human sisters can also be peacemakers if they seize the opportunity. An instance among the former can be seen in the custom of female chimpanzees in zoos of prying stones and clubs from the hands of aggressive males before they can do harm with them (page 63). An instance of the latter is seen in the action of a woman scientiest who saw a gang of adult male chimps about to kill a chimp baby (pages 26-7). With no thought for Scientific Objectivity or her own safety (each of the would-be killers was muscular and more than twice her size), she rushed in threateningly: "Leave that baby alone, you big murdering bullies!" They fled before her righteous indignation: "Audaces fortuna iuvat."


With the help of de Waal's insights we can see that oppression of females and nonaggressive males, hunting and eating of other animals, murder, and warfare all go together hand in bloody hand in chimp society and in the worst of human societies. Female liberation, vegetarianism, and peaceful coexistence form a harmonious whole in bonobo society , and can do so in human societies as well. The key is not genetics, which is nearly the same in both. The crucial thing is for females in touch with their own best interests--and males who are equally wise--to unite in solidarity: to opt for love (erotic or otherwise), defending the weak, showing the violent that they are capable of better things, and teaching the new generation to do the same.


—Benjamin Urrutia