what i'm reading: our inner ape: a leading primatologist explains why we are who we are

When I scroll through my ridiculously long book list, the name Frans de Waal appears again and again. I read reviews of his books, they sound appealing, they go on the list -- and there it ends. This has been going on since the 1990s, and now in 2020, I had yet to read one of his books. 

Finally, my reading plan (originally here, with updates here and here) put de Waal back on my radar. At Russell Books in Victoria, I found two of his books, and I put two more on hold at my library. I've read one so far, and I'm pleased to say I thoroughly enjoyed it.

De Waal is a primatologist -- he studies primates, the group of mammals that includes apes and humans. He's that rare gem, a high-level scholar who writes with a breezy, accessible style, weaving wonderful examples from his own research and from popular culture.

Our Inner Ape is de Waal's answer to a popular conception of humankind's "animal nature" -- the brutal, violent, combative human, which is kept in check, however imperfectly, by the imposition of human society. It's also an answer to so-called "Social Darwinism" (Darwin did not posit this and would not have approved), which rationalizes greed and selfishness as supposedly innately human.

In wonderfully accessible and entertaining writing, de Waal shows that the animal world is not only home to violent and competitive behaviour, but that empathy, kindness, altruism, and moral choices exist in the natural, non-human world, too -- especially in our nearest evolutionary relative, the apes.

Two species of apes are most closely related to humans -- chimpanzees and the lesser-known bonobos. Where chimps are famously aggressive, violent, individualistic, and solve group conflict with violence, bonobos are matriarchal, highly social, and solve conflicts with -- wait for it -- sex.

Bonobos use sex for conflict resolution, bargaining, and for no reason at all, simply for pleasure. They are all bisexual and will engage in rubbing their genitals together anywhere, any time. When animal groups celebrate -- such as wolves yipping and howling when the alpha female gives birth -- bonobos have an orgy.

Bonobos have been overlooked in the field of primate research, and de Waal explains why. Some of it is prudishness.

In the 1990s, a British camera crew traveled to the remote jungles of Africa to film bonobos only to stop their cameras each time an "embarrassing" scene appeared in the viewfinder. When a Japanese scientist assisting the crew asked they they weren't documenting any sex, he was told "our viewers wouldn't be interested."

But, de Waal believes, based on ample evidence, that the more prevalent reason is

... the fact that bonobos fail to fit established notions about human nature. Believe me, if studies found that they massacre one another, everyone would know about bonobos. Their peacefulness is the real problem. I sometimes imagine what would have happened if we'd known the bonobo first and the chimpanzee only later or not at all. The discussion about human evolution might not revolve as much around violence, warfare, and male dominance, but rather around sexuality, empathy, caring, and cooperation. What a different intellectual landscape we would occupy!

Here are a bunch of anecdotes from this book that I found fascinating.

* A bonobo with a heart condition was transferred to a new zoo, and had trouble adjusting to his new surroundings. The other bonobos "took him by the hand and led him to where the keepers wanted him, thus showing they understood both the keepers' intentions and Kidogo's problem."

* A small bird crashed into the glass of a bonobo enclosure. The bonobo picked up the bird, and tried to set it on its feet. When that didn't work, the ape climbed a tree, then gently spread the bird's wings, then released it.

* After the death of an alpha female chimpanzee, the observing scientists were unsure of who would become the new matriarch. A disagreement among some male chimps had gotten very heated, and de Waal was sure that it would turn violent and bloody. Then a female rose from her resting place, and quietly sauntered into the middle of the fracas. All eyes were on her. The others started following her, as if in a procession. She simply sat down and started grooming one of the males in the conflict. All the other chimps followed her example and began grooming each other. Everyone calmed down. The new alpha female had gently ended the conflict. Even chimpanzees are capable of this.

* In experiments that are no longer performed for ethical reasons, when monkeys saw that pressing a lever for food resulted in another monkey being shocked, the monkeys would refuse to pull the lever, even to the point of starvation.

* Even among chimpanzees, who can be ruthlessly violent, hunting for meat is a cooperative endeavour, and the meat is always shared among the entire group, whether or not they participated in the hunt.

* de Waal was eager to see a newborn infant being carried by one bonobo female. The infants are apparently difficult to see, "really no more than a little dark blob against a mother's dark tummy". He called to the mother, and pointed at her belly. Then:

Lolita looked up at me, sat down, and took the infant's right hand in her right hand and its left hand in her left hand. This sounds simple, but given that the baby was clinging to her, she had to cross her arms to do so. The movement resembled that of people crossing their arms when grabbing a t-shirt by its hems in order to take it off. She then slowly lifted the baby in the air while turning it around on its axis, unfolding it in front of me. Suspended from its mother's hands, the baby now faced me instead of her. After the baby made a few grimaces and whimpers -- infants hate losing touch with a warm belly -- Lolita quickly tucked it back into her lap.
* When the moat around the bonobo enclosure was drained for cleaning, a few teenaged bonobos climbed in to explore. The zoo worker went to turn on the taps to refill the moat, when all the bonobos started screaming and waving their arms, frantically trying to get his attention. Apes can't swim. The zoo worker brought over a ladder; all the bonobos in the moat climbed up, except the smallest one, who was pulled up by one of the other teenagers.

* A female colleague of de Waal's returned to the zoo after a maternity leave, to show the bonobos her infant. (The bonobos had accepted the researcher as one of their own, even sharing food with her.)

The oldest female briefly glanced at the human baby, then disappeared into an adjacent cage. [The female researcher] thought the female was upset, but she had only left to pick up her own newborn. She quickly returned to hold the ape baby up against the glass so that the two infants could look in each other's eyes.

De Waal also demonstrates that much behaviour that is thought of as innate or in-born is in fact learned socially and by example. After a story of how male some male chimpanzees beat a female of their group, he writes:

Even though chimps have been known to use branches and sticks to hit predators, such as leopards, armed attacks on members of one's own species were, until recently, considered uniquely human. And the habit of beating females seems to have spread. ... The copycat spreading of this ugly habit shows the extend to which apes are socially influenced. They often follow the example of others. We should therefore be careful not to jump to conclusions about the "naturalness" of this behavior. Chimpanzee males are not programmed to beat females. Instead, it is something they are capable of doing under certain circumstances. Ingrained behavior is rare in our closest relatives, and it is even rarer in ourselves.

In the same chapter de Waal notes that, "the human species is far too loosely programmed for such highly specific behavior to be genetic." Evolutionary psychologists and apologists for bad behavior cherry-pick tidbits of evidence from the animal world. Human hunter-gatherer societies were nothing if not cooperative societies. There was no ruthless capitalism at work there. The same goes for sexual tastes.

An entire cottage industry of studies has sprung up around the theory that every man is looking for a youthful, smooth-skinned, perky-breasted, optimally fertile woman, and that every woman is a gold digger, interested in men only as providers.

Yet male bonobos prefer mature sexual partners. The oldest female in the group has the most power and is most sought-after as a mate. At different times in human history, different body types have been elevated as the ideal; the fleshy, plus-sized nudes painted by the artist Peter Paul Rubens are often cited as an example of this.

I'll close this post with a quote from the chapter "Violence".

Given the popular use and abuse of evolutionary theory, it's hardly surprising that Darwinism and natural selection have become synonymous with unchecked competition. Darwin himself, however, was anything but a Social Darwinist. On the contrary, he believed there was room for kindness in both human nature and in the natural world. We urgently need this kindness, because the question facing a growing world population is not so much whether or not we can handle crowding, but if we will be fair and just in the distribution of resources. Will we go for all-out competition or will we do the humane thing? Our close relatives can teach us some important lessons here. They show us that compassion is not a recent weakness going against the grain of nature but a formidable power that is as much a part of who and what we are as the competitive tendencies it seeks to overcome.


impudent strumpet said...

I love that the idea of "show people the baby" is also present in apes!

It's one of those things that is perfectly normal, but when I start thinking about it I find it weird that it's perfectly normal. In non-pandemic times, if I'm waiting in line at the grocery store or something and I see a baby in a stroller and the parent notices me looking, they'll often tilt the stroller so I can see the baby better - even though I'm a complete stranger. There's no logical reason why they should show me the baby, but we as a society seem to have collectively decided that of course people want to see the baby, and of course we should show them the baby.

And apes do it too! I love it!

I'm also reminded of this video where an orangutan wants to see a zoo visitor's baby.

laura k said...

I think "show people the baby" is a very deep impulse. It's new life. It means the community is continuing.

Similarly celebrating a baby's first year of life is nearly universal. Up until modern times (and still in some places... inexcusably!) infant survival was always in doubt. Making it through the first year meant a much greater chance of long-term survival.

Wolves go crazy when the alpha female gives birth!

The "show the baby to total strangers" thing... maybe that is the assumption that everyone likes babies? I run into that a lot, and have to pretend I care.

laura k said...

Very cool video! The pointing...!