Books: ‘Bonobo Handshake’ by Vanessa Woods

Originally posted on June 7, 2010.

To get disclaimers out of the way, first, Vanessa Woods (on Twitter) is a friend. I first met her online, reading her blog Bonobo Handshake where she documented her day-to-day life and work with bonobos in the Congo. We met in person shortly after her arrival to North Carolina, at a blogger meetup in Durham, after which she came to three editions of ScienceOnline conference.

I interviewed Vanessa after the 2008 event and blogged (scroll down to the second half of the post) about her 2009 session ‘Blogging adventure: how to post from strange locations’. At the 2010 conference, she was one of the five storytellers at the ScienceOnline Monti on Thursday night (and did another stint at The Monti in Carrboro a couple of months later). I have since then also met her husband Brian Hare and we instantly hit it off marvelously.

I have read Vanessa’s previous book, ‘It’s every monkey for themselves‘, but never reviewed it on the blog because I felt uneasy – that book is so personal! But it is an excellent and wonderfully written page-turner of a book so I knew I was in for a treat when I got a review copy of her new book, Bonobo Handshake ( I could not wait for it to officially come out so I could go to the first public reading (where I took the picture) at the Regulator in Durham on May 27th, on the day of publication.

Vanessa recently moved her blog to a new location on Psychology Today network and had a few interviews in local papers, more sure to come soon.

The book weaves four parallel threads. The first is Vanessa’s own life. Bonobo Handshake starts where ‘Each monkey’ leaves off. And while the ‘Monkey’ covered the period of her life that was pretty distressing, this book begins as her life begins to normalize, describing how she met Brian, fell in love, and got married – a happy trajectory.

The second thread is the science – the experiments they did on behavior and cognition in bonobos and chimps, and how the results fit into the prior knowledge and literature on primate (including human) nature.

The third thread reports on the conservation status of great apes, especially bonobos, and all the social, cultural, financial and political factors that work for or against the efforts to prevent them from going extinct.

The fourth thread is the country of Congo, where all the bonobos in the wild live, especially its recent history of war and its effects on the local people.

The four threads are seamlessly intervowen with each other, but it takes some time into the book to realize that there is, besides the fact that Vanessa was there and did the stuff and wrote about it, another unifying thread – the question of cooperation vs. competition. Vanessa and Brian sometimes love, sometimes fight: what determined one behavior at one time and the opposite at another time?

For the most part, chimps compete and bonobos cooperate: why is that? And what accounts for occasional exceptions to that rule? When threatened, or perceiving to be threatened, animals become insecure. Chimps deal with that insecurity by lashing out – becoming violent and aggressive, or at least putting out a great show of machismo. When bonobos feel insecure (including when they are very young), they solve the problem (and release the tension) by having sex with each other. If chimps won the national elections in the USA, they would probably rule by fear and force, investing mightily into the military, the police and the prison system, going around the world bombing other countries, declaring various internal “Wars on X”, and generally trying to keep the population fearful, subdued and obedient. Bonobos in such a position would always first try to find out a diplomatic solution: how to turn a stranger, or even an enemy into a friend and ally? Share something! Whatever you have: food, shelter, sex…. Everyone is safer that way in the end.

Of course, there are reasons why chimps are one way and bonobos the other. Food is scarce where chimps live, thus there is competition for it, thus the strongest individual wins, and the winner takes all. The position in the hierarchy is the key to survival. Individualism rules. On the other hand, there is plenty of food where bonobos live, enough to share with everyone, eat enough to get bloated, and still plenty left over to just let rot. Why fight over it? Thus, communitarian spirit rules, and if a big strong male starts to feel his oats a little too much, the females will get together and gang up on him as a sisterhood and beat the crap out of him – a rare exception to their usual non-violence, but an act that restores harmony to the group as a whole.

What can we learn from it? That, being equally related to both species, as well as being smarter, we are quite capable of switching between the two modes of reaction to perceived threats: competitive or cooperative. Some people (probably due to the social environment in which they were raised) tend to respond more like chimps, others more like bonobos, but all are capable of behaving both ways. Thus, all are capable of making choices how to react. And the society as a whole can teach people about the exictence of this choice and, in some general ways regarding different kinds of issues, suggest which of the two reactions is condoned by the society and which one will lend you in jail. Studying both chimps and bonobos, comparing them to each other and to humans, can help us understand this choice better, and what it takes to make one or the other reaction to a perceived threat. And even how to study, as researchers, competitions versus cooperation, something that was historically colored by the social upbringing of individual scientists.

[An aside: this is not really relevant to the book as whole, but if I remember correctly it occurs once in the book, and Vanessa sometimes mentions it in her public speaking and on her blog. She mentions the old trope that we are about 98% identical to both chimps and bonobos. That number denotes the identity of sequences of DNA that is expressed in adult, sexually mature individuals at a particular time of year and particular time of day. It ignores all the unexpressed DNA, individual differences, seasonal/daily changes in expression, and effect of the environment. It also ignores the fact that the sequence is not what really matters – it is how the developing organism (from zygote, through embryonic and post-embryonic development, through metamorphosis, growth, maturation, puberty, adulthood and senescence) uses those sequences to effect the development of traits and the day-to-day response of the organism to the environment. It is not the sequence that matters, but which gene is expressed in which cell at what time and in conjunction with which other genes that matters. The number “98% equal” reeks of genetic determinism, which originates with Adaptation and Natural Selection, the 1966 book by George Williams which corrupted generations of biologists, and ‘The Selfish Gene‘, the 1976 book by Richard Dawkins which ruined generations of lay readers and science journalists. It peaked in late 1990s (I wrote this in 1999) with the hype over Human Genome Project (“Holy Grail”, “Blueprint of Life”!) and currently survives only in the realm of that abomination of science we all know as Evolutionary Psychology. There is a lot of literature explaining the poverty of the genocentric and deterministic view of biology, most notably the entire opuses of Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, their numerous students and proteges and fans, and an entire generation of evo-devo researchers (the field was spawned/inspired by Gould’s 1977 book ‘Ontogeny and Phylogeny’) and Philosophers of Science (e.g.., Bob Brandon, Bill Wimsatt) who spent some years proving it wrong and, successfully done that, have since moved on to more fertile topics. Actually, one of the easiest-to-read books on the topic for lay audience is titled – What it Means to be 95% Chimpanzee: Apes, People, and their Genes. Saying that humans and bonobos are 98 (or 95, or 99, different numbers are thrown out) percent identical to us is like saying that an airplane and a house are identical because both are built with identical sizes, shapes and colors of Lego blocks – except that one propeller-piece that the airplane has and the house does not. Bonobos and humans are similar because our development is similar, leading to similar phenotypes – not much to do with the sequences of c-DNA libraries. Aside over.]

Conservation of Great Apes depends on humans cooperating to make it happen, but also has to take into account the instrinsic proclivities of different species (chimps, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans and gibbons are all different) towards violence vs. collaboration which dictate the sizes and shapes and organizational schemes of their sanctuaries and eventual wild refuges.

Finally, civil war in Congo is an enormous example of violent competition, but what were its causes? Who chose to compete in this way and why? What was the competition about? Did the end of the Cold War sufficiently weaken the Non-Aligned Movement in a way that reduced the national pride of the people of its member-nations (allowing tribal instincts to take over), reduced the economic cooperation between the member countries (thus sending some of their economies into a downward spiral leading to hopelessness which often leads to lashing out at perceived enemies), or reduced the military cooperation between the members that would scare any potential leader of a tribal movement, or reduced the authority and thus ability of the Movement’s leadership to intervene and prevent wars between the members?

Why did some people come out of war utterly changed – the “living dead” – while others emerged hopeful, energetic and optimistic, full of life and love? How did collaboration of some people help save some of them from murder, and save their psyches from lifelong scars?

Vanessa weaves these four threads expertly and, at the end of the book, you cannot help but care about all four! It is a fast and easy read, you never feel bored or inundated by information, yet you end the book with vastly more knowledge than when you began. And once you know about something enough, you start caring.

I remember as a kid, before the Internet, trying to find something to read after I have finished all 20 library books I took out and still having a couple of weeks of boring vacation ahead of me. Stuck somewhere outside of civilization, with nothing else to do, there was nothing else but to explore the enormous leather-bound classics, each thousands of pages long, each unabridged – stuff that every home has. So I read, slowly and carefully as there was no need to rush, such books as David Copperfield, Pickwick Papers, Teutonic Knights, Moby Dick, Les Miserables, The Road to Life and Martin Eden and others. Being a kid, I did not know anything about any of those topics, and these ancient authors LOVED to write lengthy treateses on various topics over many pages, yet, by getting informed about them, I got to care about Victorian England, Medieval Religious Wars in Poland, classification of whales (and how Melville got it horribly wrong), Paris sewers, educational reforms, and the hard life of becoming a writer. Once, when I contracted something (rubella? scarlet fever?) that made me sick for a couple of days but contagious for another three weeks, with nothing to do at home, I read the unabridged five volumes of War and Peace – at the beginning I did not, but at the end I did care about Russian aristocracy and military strategy (or “how to lose a land war in a Russian winter, part I”).

I don’t know about you, but before I picked up ‘Bonobo Hanshake’ I cared about Vanessa, being a friend, and was thus interested to see what happened after the ‘Monkeys’ book was published. I was interested in bonobo behavior (as we discussed it a lot back in grad school – I did my concentration in Animal Behavior and was a part of the Keck Center for Behavioral Biology) especially as I did not follow the scientific literature on it over the past 6-7 years. I had no idea how endangered bonobos were, nor did I know anything about the civil war in the Congo (and how it is related to the civil war in Rwanda). And while Vanessa did not emulate the 19th century writers, and instead of long chapters on each topic she intertwined brief updates on each of the four threads within each short chapter, I still learned a lot – enough to start caring about the apes, about the people of Congo, about the primatologists working in dangerous places, about individual bonobos and individual Congolese people whose lives intersected Vanessa’s over the past few years. More you know, more you care. So, even if the four themes of this book do not automatically excite you, I suggest you pick up the book – a couple of hours later, you will deeply care about it, know more, want to know even more, and will feel good about it.

Update: In strange synchronicity, Jason Goldman and Brian Switek also reviewed the book today. The book has now also been reviewed by DeLene Beeland, Sheril Kirshenbaum and Christie Wilcox.

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