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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Book Review: Vanessa Woods' Bonobo Handshake

What We're Reading: Bonobo Handshake
By Susan K Lewis

The beautiful woman on the book jacket cavorting with a baby bonobo might make Bonobo Handshake look like family-friendly fare. But primatologist Vanessa Woods' powerful new memoir is no Curious George (unless you can imagine The Man in the Yellow Hat swept up in a passionate romance and living with endangered apes in war-torn Congo).

I came across Woods' book in the course of doing research for an upcoming NOVA scienceNOW website on animal cognition, and it is indeed a window into the emotions and psychology of our nearest primate relatives, bonobos and chimps. But more than that it's a revealing look into the mind and heart of a young woman finding her way as a scientist and a conservationist.

The book is an appealing read even for people not usually drawn to science (hardcore science fans might, in fact, be turned off by the personal drama) and an eye-opening reality check for anyone interested in doing research with primates. I would love for my own young daughters to read it someday, but not much about this book is G-rated.

Let's start with the title. What, exactly, is a "bonobo handshake"? Here's a hint: "Kikongo ... sticks his penis through the bars, waving it wildly at the bonobos outside munching on papaya and manioc leaves, begging for a bonobo handshake." It turns out that when bonobos greet one another--even strangers from another troop--they are as likely to rub each other's genitals as we humans are to shake hands. (In contrast, when chimps encounter unfamiliar chimps, they often react with murderous rage.) As the primatologist Frans de Waal famously puts it, bonobos are the "make-love-not-war" primate.

Sex among bonobos is less about procreation than recreation--it's the means for resolving conflicts when tensions flare; it's the glue that holds social groups together. And while bonobo sex resembles a hippie lovefest, the sex life of chimps is more like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. What makes chimps and bonobos so different? And which of our primate cousins are we humans more like?
Woods offers a personal glimpse into the studies exploring the cognitive differences between chimps and bonobos (some of which are covered in NOVA's "Ape Genius.") She got involved in the research after visiting a chimp sanctuary in Uganda in 2005, where she fell in love with a charming post-doc fresh out of Harvard named Brian Hare. Hare is now an assistant professor at Duke as well as Woods' husband.

Woods' book raises but wisely doesn't attempt to definitively answer the question of whether we are more bonobo than chimp. The backdrop of her love affair--both with Hare and with the orphan bonobos of the Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary--is a country wracked by a war in which children are recruited to take up machetes and rape is a favorite weapon.

Unlike our simian cousins, however, we humans may have more control over which of our emotional sides to favor--the altruistic or the vicious. And many of the resilient characters Woods encounters in the Congo give us reason to hope: Through her, we meet a remarkable man named Mugwagu, who has survived the squalor of refugee camps with dreams of becoming a doctor, and a gutsy conservationist named Claudine Andre, who has turned the former weekend retreat of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko into a refuge for bonobos and people alike.

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