Saturday, July 28, 2007

Apes R Not Us, and we have to get used to it

In a beautifully written article in the New Yorker, Ian Parker describes how he shared the hot, damp work of studying the elusive bonobo (lesser chimpanzee) - long lauded as sexy and peaceful - with one of the only people in the world who actually knows much about them in the wilds.

Here's the legend:
In recent years, the bonobo has found a strange niche in the popular imagination, based largely on its reputation for peacefulness and promiscuity. The Washington Post recently described the species as copulating "incessantly"; the Times claimed that the bonobo "stands out from the chest-thumping masses as an example of amicability, sensitivity and, well, humaneness"; a PBS wildlife film began with the words "Where chimpanzees fight and murder, bonobos are peacemakers. And, unlike chimps, it's not the bonobo males but the females who have the power." The Kinsey Institute claims on its Web site that "every bonobo female, male, infant, high or low status seeks and responds to kisses." And, in Los Angeles, a sex adviser named Susan Block promotes what she calls "The Bonobo Way" on public-access television.

Here's the reality:
Stevens went on to recall a bonobo in the Stuttgart Zoo whose penis had been bitten off by a female. (He might also have mentioned keepers at the Columbus and San Diego zoos who both lost bits of fingers. In the latter instance, the local paper's generous headline was "APE RETURNS FINGERTIP TO KEEPER.") "Zoos don't know what to do," Stevens said. "They, too, believe that bonobos are less aggressive than chimps, which is why zoos want to have them. But, as soon as you have a group of bonobos, after a while you have this really violent aggression. I think if zoos had bonobos in big enough groups" more like wild bonobos "you would even see them killing." In Stevens's opinion, bonobos are "very tense. People usually say they're relaxed. I find the opposite. Chimps are more laid-back. But, if I say I like chimps more than I like bonobos, my colleagues think I'm crazy."

Parker's account is nuanced, but he makes clear that all along primatologists have had an agenda to try to prove that humans are not condemned to be brutes because bonobos are, like, nice.

One way that the reputation of the bonobo as a "kinder, gentler ape "was preserved was by avoiding actually studying them in the wild. As one primatologist observes of the best-known ape specialist (primatologist):
"I think Frans had free rein to say anything he wanted about bonobos for about ten years," Stanford told me. "He's a great scientist, but because he's worked only in captive settings this gives you a blindered view of primates. I think he took a simplistic approach, and, because he published very widely on it and writes very nice popular books, it's become the conventional wisdom. We had this large body of evidence on chimps, then suddenly there were these other animals that were very chimplike physically but seemed to be very different behaviorally. Instead of saying, 'These are variations on a theme,' it became point-counterpoint." He added, "Scientific ideas exist in a marketplace, just as every other product does."

Indeed. And the product the market was buying is a materialist myth, namely that humans can be better understood by tracking the elusive bonobo through the Congo jungles, as if consciousness makes no difference at all.

In The Spiritual Brain, Mario and I discuss the efforts to derive human nature from the studies of apes. When I read about it, I always end up feeling sorry for the poor apes, who never asked for anything like that, and can't undertand it or do anything about it.

But ... every myth contains some elements of truth - Parker, who subscribes to the myth at least in part, provides marvellous vignettes of human nature, in ways for which the bonobos can provide no insight. The scientists could have been hunting the snark, actually. After all, what they told us three times was true.


Service note

Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary ( is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), anoverview of the intelligent design controversy, and of Faith@Science. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Harper 2007).

My other blog is the Post-Darwinist, detailing events of interest in the intelligent design controversy.