Primatology, the study of our ape cousins, must at once be the most rewarding and thankless jobs in science. On the one hand, these investigations can tell us more about ourselves than any philosophy or psychology curriculum can hope to impart. We learn of their friendships, conflicts, desires, social manipulations and group politics. The resemblances to humans make compelling reading. On the other hand, the long history of our culture has conditioned us to avoid recognising our evolutionary roots. There are "the animals" and there is "us".
With thirty years' experience in the Netherlands and the United States, de Waal wants us to understand how human values derive from primate origins. His careful studies have revealed things unexpected even to himself. His chief aim with this synopsis is to dispense with the many myths that have emerged over the past few years - chimpanzees as "murderers" or "war-makers"; bonobos as over-sexed and gender indifferent, both as "simply wild animals living at the command of "instinct". Diversity and individuality are a major facet of ape societies which, in de Waal's assessment, not only makes them worthy of study, but worthy of sound comparison with our own species.
At first glance, de Waal's condensation of ape behaviour into four topical chapters seems over-distillation. The material in those chapters, however, shows the complexity of primate personalities. Chimpanzee society is male-dominated, with young males taking every opportunity to displace the "alpha" group leader. They live in a strongly hierarchical society where the males hunt and dispense meat for sexual and other favours. Female chimpanzees form few alliances, although brief excursions with males other than the alpha occur. The other "chimpanzee", as de Waal points out, couldn't be more different. The bonobo, once known as the "pygmy chimp", has a more egalitarian society. In fact, the most dominant individual is usually an older female. When fights occur, they are generally brief and inconsequential. The "alpha" female is more likely to die of old age than be toppled by a younger competitor. The leading bonobo is respected for her conciliation and diplomatic skills. Power, then, is a feature of primate society, but how power is exhibited and maintained varies greatly.
"Sex" and "Violence" form the next two topics. Among the apes, including humans, there are several trade-offs involved in producing and raising offspring. Male-dominated chimpanzee groups can establish parentage with relative ease. "Extra-Pair Matings" [EPM] are discouraged and the alpha male is fairly secure in the babies being his. One of the more distressing discoveries about chimpanzees was the revelation that an usurping alpha would kill all his predecessor's offspring. Bonobos would find such behaviour abhorrent [as do we]. In bonobo society, everybody has sex with everybody else - gender is irrelevant. Consequently, since any baby might belong to any male, infanticide is unknown. It's not unknown among humans. The rate of violence against stepchildren, says de Waal, is a matter of some concern. The rate of human EPM is even higher, with studies indicating as many as one-fifth of newborns fathered by unacknowledged men. Yet, alone among primates, we form the "nuclear family" group.
There's another side to all ape behaviour, says de Waal. That's "Kindness". Science turns over both its own and society's often cherished beliefs. One of those beliefs is that only humans "care". Opening the book with the now-famous case of the gorilla that rescued a small child from a zoo moat, de Waal goes on to explain how apes are kind to each other, and even other species. We like to believe that kindness is something we invented with culture, but de Waal suggests there are roots for it reaching back at least 6 million years when the chimp-human lineage split. "The apes can tell us much about ourselves", he contends. There's no better place to seek that information than among them. While fights among chimpanzees are common and often intense, so is the reconciliation that follows. Chimpanzees, bonobos and humans are form societies. Each has methods to keep those societies functioning. Empathy and mutual kindness are as much a part of ape "culture" as in human communities. De Waal urges that we open our eyes to the examples offered by our ape cousins for hints about solving some of our own problems. The biggest step we must take in that process is the recognition that our habits derive from theirs.
That derivation is de Waal's conclusion to this excellent work. Much has been made of the fact that humans and chimpanzees share over 98% of our DNA. The author passes over the numbers in favour of the behavioural evidence. We and the other apes share the experience of "community" and how to live with others. In aspects of sex and violence, we share habits and diverge - but not far - in others. It's false, he says, to argue that humans are "naturally" violent or loving. We aren't the manifestation of "selfish" genes alone, but adapt fluidly to changing conditions. Like the other apes, we negotiate, maneuver and manipulate, sometimes successfully. Our greatest difference is in the way we occupy and use territory. We evolved in an open environment, but we live enclosed in urban centres. That is a contradiction we must learn to deal with. We are, in his words, "The Bipolar Ape". [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]