In addition to Frans de Waal’s books on this fascinating relative of ours (The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, 2010, and The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, 2014), I’s like to recommend the book I just finished: Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo by Vanessa Woods, 2010.
Woods, whose book is an account of the time she and her husband, primatologist Brian Hare, spent at a bonobo refuge in the Congo, writes that “six million years ago, our last common ancestor with apes split into three different lines, which would eventually become chimpanzees, bonobos, and us. Along our journey, something extraordinary happened. We grew big brains. We tamed fire. We started to talk. But all that would have been for nothing if not for one simple thing – tolerance. Tolerance is what allowed us to cooperate, and every one of our great accomplishments comes from sharing ideas, building on the thoughts and concepts of others.
In our first experiments, we found that chimps could cooperate, but only after we controlled for tolerance. Intelligence wasn’t the problem – they were smart enough to know they needed help, but their emotions got in the way. Tolerance isn’t something we always excel at either. We know that chimps have an involuntary physical reaction when they hear or see a stranger, and, to a certain extent, we have the same reaction.” Bonobos don’t. Perhaps because they’re endowed with “incredibly high testosterone,” even as babies, they’re able to use sex (the “bonobo handshake”) to create mutual tolerance – a behavior that’s absent in chimpanzees, for whom sex is part of the dominance hierarchy.
Woods says that in experiments bonobos readily share food with strangers, humans are somewhere in the middle of this scale, and chimps share the least.
“So, if bonobos are more tolerant in some ways than humans, why did they never develop our level of intelligence?” They didn’t need to – they always had everything they needed, while humans often needed additional food and other resources, and fought with strangers and predators. “Most of the time, bonobos have no hunger, no violence, no poverty,” Woods says. “And for all our things, bonobos have the most important of all possessions – peace. That’s why they’re important – because they hold the key to a world without war. If we lose bonobos [who are endangered, living in one forest in the Congo], we’ll never learn their secret. And even more tragically, because they share so much of what makes us human, we’ll never understand ourselves.”
In the epilogue, Woods says, ‘When bonobos get angry, they hug,” and “together, bonobo females [who rule the roost] are strong.”
In the acknowledgements: “The orphans of Lola ya Bonobo survive because of the generosity of people like you. If you would like to sponsor a bonobo or make a donation, please visit www.friendsofbonobos.org.”
In Further Reading, “Sara Gruen is writing one of the first fictions about bonobos, tentatively called Ape House.” Ape House, a great novel, was published in 2011.
Woods’ website is www.bonobohandshake.com.