2006-07 BOOK TOUR



When people do evil things, such as when they commit genocides in Bosnia or Rwanda, we call them "animals." If people do altruistic things, such as when they save another's life or give generously to the poor, we attribute this to our noble human morality. We call them "humane."

Both sides of human nature, however, are tied to our biology. This theme of the duality of human nature, hovering between beast and angel, is brought home in Our Inner Ape by looking at our two closest animal relatives, the chimpanzee and the bonobo. The chimpanzee has a reputation as murderous and power-hungry, whereas the bonobo, the hippie of the primate world, seems to prefer to "make love - not war." Both apes are equally close to us on the primate family tree, but comparisons with chimpanzees have thus far dominated the media and literature. This is because until recently little was known about the bonobo. The bonobo's female dominance, cooperative nature, and use of sex to restore peace poses a challenge to certain male-biased theoriesthat equate humanity's aggressiveness with progress.

Over the last few decades, biologists have popularized the image of humans as driven by "selfish genes," doing only what is good for themselves. This message fit the Reagan-Thatcher Zeitgeist of greed as the foundation of the free-market system. Well before Enron and the spate of corporate scandals, however, Western cultures have been placing increasing emphasis on moral responsibility and community.


Also within biology, the tone of the debate about human nature has changed drastically over the last few years, from the right of the strongest to the evolution of morality and commitment. This seems the right time, therefore, to present a more complete picture of human nature and human ancestry, one that tries to accommodate both the chimpanzee and the bonobo within us.

In doing so, the focus is on human behavior through the eyes of a primatologist. I have written both Chimpanzee Politics (on the Machiavellian tendencies of male chimpanzees) and Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape (on the Rousseauian tendencies of bonobos). By using the bonobo and chimp as provocative metaphors for ourselves and our evolutionary ancestry, we are able to see vivid mirror images of ourselves.

The book is published in the US by Riverhead, in 2005, and will soon thereafter appear in a dozen other countries. See complete list of editions.


The title "Our Inner Ape" was decided on an impulse early on. It was intended as a joke, to be updated and changed later on when we would come up with a more serious, more appropriate title. But in fact, we never found a better one. The joke makes people smile and immediately communicates what the book is about.



All of this book's topics are close to my heart, such as conflict resolution, power strategies, and the origins of human morality. Since I have treated the major themes before, finding my voice wasn't that hard. The new twist of Our Inner Ape was to make primate behavior apply directly to human behavior.

In previous books, I left the human connection open. When I wrote Chimpanzee Politics, for example, I just assumed that readers would see the link with human behavior. I didn't go out of my way to point it out. I didn't mention any actual political situations out of fear that such asides would distract from the chimp story.

In Our Inner Ape, I threw such caution aside. To make the human connection explicit I relied on what I learn from newspapers, Time and Newsweek, the internet, and so on. I have an avid interest in international politics, but also in the peculiarities of my home country, the USA. And then, of course, there are the many psychological studies of human behavior that I could rely on. Some human behavior is off limits to the social sciences, which has its share of taboos - such as on power - so that I had to feel my way based on what I see around me or read in novels (which can be very good at analyzing people's motives). But there is plenty of knowledge on human xenophobia, violence, desire for fairness, and development of empathy.

I write my books without much of an outline except for the chapter titles. My main strategy is to just start writing and see what happens. From one topic follows another, and before you know it I have a dozen pages filled with stories and thoughts. The primate stories are engraved in my mind like so many family dramas. I have a very visual memory, and remember events in great detail.


When I write, my desk fills up with ever higher piles of papers and books used for reference, until it is a big mess, which is something I cannot stand. I am very neat. So, at some point I put all that stuff away, print out the text I've written, and sit down comfortably with a red pen. By that time I have already gone over the text multiple times. With pen in hand, I do a very rigorous rereading and again change things around. I am in fact a slow writer due to the frequent rereading and rewriting.

The second step comes when I show the text to Catherine, my wife, who knows all the stories by now, but still looks at the whole with a fresh eye. Her comments help me keep the text lively and explain things that I had taken for granted. After this, I show the text to colleagues and editors, who add another layer of comments. I am always amazed how many modifications a text goes through before I am satisfied. And often the process is one of reduction, of throwing out what's unneeded. I am a big believer in the German saying "In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister" (self-imposed limits characterize the master).

I write mostly in the evenings and weekends. I cannot write most of the week as I am either teaching or touring my research sites. Those days are too busy to concentrate on writing. Most writing is done at home in my office that looks out on our garden and the forest around it. But I also write on trips if I have a few hours alone in a hotel, and one entire chapter of Our Inner Ape was written in my favorite city, Paris, alternated with inspirational strolls in a nearby park.