Monday, April 27, 2009

Our Inner Ape

Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are the Way We Are
© 2005 Frans De Waal
288 pages

I've been passing by this one for weeks now, and decided to give it a go this past weekend. It was a short, quick, and incredibly interesting read. Although we human beings like to separate ourselves from the (rest of the) animal world, De Waal states in his opening chapter that we can learn a lot about ourselves by studying the society of our closest relatives, the great apes. While his introduction mentions gorillas, the book is utterly dominated by examinations of chimpanzee and bonobo society. Bonobos are a subspecies of chimpanzees who are in some ways closer to us -- both physiologically and socially. Although we associate our animal nature with "brutish" behavior, De Waal maintains that our nature is a "Janus nature". The nature of the apes lends itself to both violence and peace -- to hate and love. Rather than focusing on one "face" of our existence over the other -- or on one kind of chimpanzee studies over the other -- De Waal belives that we have a lot to learn from either.

The book is divided into four sections -- "Power", "Sex", "Violence", and "Kindness" and finishes with an epilogue. In each, De Waal compares human societies with chimpanzee and bonobo communities, commenting at length on the extent and type of behavior being observed. The book is very well written, I think, and draws directly from field research. He references Jane Goodwall's work as well as his own. He goes into a lot of detail: for me, having read one of Goodall's books so recently was quite helpful. There are a couple of particular points he makes I'd like to share. In the "Sex" chapter, De Waal notes that sexual behavior among the great apes is done a disservice among humans when forced to fit into only a few boxes -- "Hetero", "Homo", and "Bi". Chimpanzees, bonobos, and human beings don't fit into those boxes. Given the range of behavior exhibited by all three species it is more likely that most of us are capable of enjoying intimate relations with everyone when cultural inhibitions are taken out of the equation. Also of note for me was the chapter on "Kindness", in which De Waal demonstrates that even chimpanzees -- the "killer ape" -- are capable of acting with reason and empathy to beings within their group. Religions don't introduce kindness to people, in De Waal's (and my) words: they only build on its natural tenders in us .

I recommend the book -- not only is it very interesting, but it's quite readable as well. I went through it in a matter of hours.

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