The Bonobo & the Atheist

In Search of Humanism Among the Primates


What do primates teach us about ourselves?

If an extraterrestrial were to visit earth, he would have a hard time seeing most of the differences we treasure between ourselves and the apes. The number of similarities is far greater than the number of differences—from our ears and hands to our sexual behavior and power politics. Within this mass of shared traits a few important differences can be discerned, such as the use of language, but we tend to blow these differences out of proportion. People have a profound need to set themselves apart. But in fact, we are not just close to the apes: We are apes (To be precise: we belong to the primate order, within which the main distinction is between New World and Old World primates, and between monkeys and the Hominoids. The latter family is restricted to humans, apes, and gibbons).

The human-ape connection is one lesson from The Bonobo and the Atheist, and my other books. To see what it means for human behavior is another, and here I take the stance that not only our undesirable traits, such as violence, but also our noble ones, such as empathy and morality, are part of our primate heritage. There is really no reason to blame human biology for all that's wrong with us, because also all that's right with us is a product of our evolutionary background.

Some recent books and articles object vehemently to any talk of mental continuity between humans and other animals. They carry telling titles like Not a Chimp or Darwin's Mistake. This debate is old and will no doubt continue. To make the point how different we are these books and articles like to contrast chimpanzee tool-use, such as a twig to fish for termites, with humans traveling on airplanes and using iPhones. It is obvious that we have a talent for cultural learning and transmission, and that this talent is greater than that of chimpanzees. Yet, the cultural abilities of humans and apes are clearly related.

When humans apply themselves, as we have been doing in the last few millennia, we can go from a stick to an iPhone, but even though the end product is now radically different this doesn't mean that the underlying processes have changed to an equal degree. They still remain tied to an ability to use tools, learn from others, and invent new habits — all capacities common to humans and apes. For a recent debate in the journal Nature about continuity vs. discontinuity, see Darwin's Last Laugh.

Web links on primate taxonomy

National Geographic on Chimpanzee Taxonomy
Taxonomy on Primate Info Net

How different are captive primates?

Captive primates get their daily food for free, so they have time on their hands. Their social life intensifies as a result. Captive primates are generally healthier, and hence live longer than primates in the field. They are also less free, but this is a typically human take on their life that may not be felt the same by the animals themselves, especially those born in captivity (some great insights on this can be found in Life of Pi by Yann Martel).

This is not to say that we can get all of our information on primate behavior from captivity. We need to know a behavior's natural function to know how it may have evolved. For this, we absolutely need data from the wild. Nothing can replace the arduous work of field primatologists. On the other hand, in the wild it is impossible to do certain behavioral experiments so that conclusions are often hard to draw. For example, if apes in certain wild communities crack nuts with stones, the question is if each individual discovered this by itself or if it copied it from each other. The latter would mean that we call the pattern “cultural”, as discussed in The Ape and the Sushi Master. This question is easier to answer with experiments than field observations. We need studies on both captive and wild primates, therefore, to piece it all together and come up with the best possible theories.

I do feel strongly that captive primates should be kept in social setting in both zoos and laboratories, preferably with outdoor access. With the decreasing laboratory use of chimpanzees, there is a great need for retirement facilities. I am part of Chimp Haven, an organization devoted to releasing ex-research chimps onto large forested islands.

What are the differences between bonobos and chimpanzees?

Bonobos are more elegant, longer-legged, and smaller-headed than chimpanzees. There are other anatomical differences, but the biggest difference is in the behavior. For example their voices (click here to listen to bonobo vocalizations) sound totally different from those of chimpanzees. Bonobos are more sexual in everything they do, and adult females often dominate adult males, an unusual situation among primates. The bonobo is little known, but the more we learn about them the more they will help us reconstruct the last common ancestor (the ape from which humans, chimps, and bonobos derive). Some scientists try to keep bonobos on the sidelines, since they fail to fit certain “macho” scenarios of human evolution (which emphasize violence, hunting, and the like), yet bonobos are equally close to us as chimps hence equally relevant. Their behavior is described, and nicely illustrated by Frans Lanting's photographs in our 1997 book Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape.

Both National Geographic and Natural History magazines recently (2013) published articles with photographs of bonobos, and a detailed graphic comparing the anatomy of the two Pan species.

How does one become a primatologist?

You will need a major in psychology, anthropology, or biology. Best is of course to attend a college with professors who do primate work and teach about it. Next best is professors who do animal behavior in general. In order to get accepted in a graduate program in primatology it will be extremely helpful if you have previous experience. This may be a field trip to a place where primates are being studied, a project at your local zoo, or time spent in an animal behavior laboratory. Without such experience, the professors you apply to work with will find it hard to judge if you'll do well with primates. And without field experience it is hard to judge if you will be tough enough for work in the natural habitat (which is physically demanding and lacks many of the usual luxuries of life — some students travel all the way to the tropics only to quit in a matter of days). Foreign language skills are often required.

When we judge prospective graduate students, we make a quick distinction between those who merely think primates are cute and likable and those who are more focused on issues that they wish to explore. The latter students are preferred.