The Bonobo & the Atheist

In Search of Humanism Among the Primates


Growing up in Holland

Born in 1948 in the city of s'Hertogenbosch (also: den Bosch), I spent most of my childhood in Waalwijk, a nearby town in the southern part of the Netherlands. This Catholic region is culturally and historically closer to Flanders (in Belgium) than to the Calvinist north, known as Holland.

I am the fourth of six sons (no daughters) of a bank director's family. We grew up in a large, lively home. But I was the only one keenly interested in animals, a gene that must have skipped a generation since my mother's father owned a pet store.

As soon as I was allowed to go off on my own in the weekends, I'd take my bike and go fishing. Not with a rod, but a net. I would bring home live stickleback fish, salamanders, young eels, bitterlings, or whatever aquatic life I'd catch. I turned the sunroom of our backyard into a little zoo with buckets and tanks full of animals. I bred mice, adopted cats, and raised jackdaws. Jackdaws are small members of the crow family, and still my favorite bird: very smart and very social, just like the primates. The high point of this period was breeding my own sticklebacks and releasing them back into the ditch from which their parents came. All of this made for a natural attraction to ethology, the biological study of animal behavior (quite different from the psychological approach advocated by B. F. Skinner across the Atlantic) as the founders of ethology studied both sticklebacks (Niko Tinbergen) and jackdaws (Konrad Lorenz).

I received an excellent education at public schools, and joined the boy scouts, which had the advantage that I spent almost every Saturday in the forest south of Waalwijk learning about plants and animals as well as male bonding and rivalry.

Student Years

In high school, I had a rather boring biology teacher. This affected me such that upon graduation, when everyone recommended I go to the university, I wanted to do mathematics or physics instead of biology. My mother, however, thought that in view of my love of animals, this couldn't be the right path for me. In the Netherlands, one chooses the major before entering the university. Despite my teacher, I chose biology, and haven't regretted it since.

At the University of Nijmegen, I developed a circle of buddies and grew my hair until I was the sort of 1960s bohemian that scared the establishment. Apart from growing up, I took classes in animal anatomy, cell biology, biochemistry, and so on. I rarely heard anything about animal behavior, though. Most of the animals I saw smelled of formaldehyde and had no behavior left in them.

My eyes were opened during a stint in the psychology department of the same university, where I worked with two pre-adolescent male chimpanzees, named Koos and Nozem. Those two were fun! Every day I took them to a room where we spent hours together doing cognitive tasks, and even though they were far stronger than me, I was in charge most of the time. I cannot say the same for my successor, who went in with a tie on and got almost strangled.

This experience taught me that I wanted to study live animals, for which I promptly moved to the University of Groningen in the far north of the Netherlands. Here I finally got what I wanted. I observed my beloved jackdaws as a graduate project (a large free-ranging colony had settled in nest boxes on the wall of the zoological laboratory), conducted neuroscience on rats, and learned from such masters as Gerard Baerends and Piet Wiepkema. It was the heyday of Dutch ethology, and I took full advantage.

In the meantime I had fallen in love with a French girl, Catherine. She would occasionally hitchhike from Nantes to Groningen to share my tiny room, and moved in with me after I moved to Utrecht. This was my third Dutch university, where I did my doctoral thesis under Jan van Hooff, a specialist of primate facial expressions. I first worked on the aggressive behavior of long-tailed macaques in Jan's laboratory in Utrecht, but later went to study chimpanzees at Burgers' Zoo, in Arnhem.

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