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Environment

Why Bonobos Will Save the World

By Chris MooneyMay 27, 2010 2:21 PM
Vanessa Woods Cover

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This is a guest post from Vanessa Woods, author of the new book, Bonobo Handshake. Vanessa is a Research Scientist in Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University and studies the cognition of chimpanzees and bonobos in Congo.

When I wake up this morning, someone might try to kill me. I live 10 minutes from a small town called Durham, NC, where according to the last statistics, 22 people were killed, 76 women were raped, and there were 682 cases of aggravated assault. When a chimpanzee wakes up in the morning, they probably have the same thought. In fact, if you’re a male chimpanzee, you’re more likely to be killed by another chimpanzee than anything else. If you’re a female chimpanzee, expect to be beaten by every adolescent male who is making his way up through the ranks.

People often ask me why humans are so intelligent, as in, what is it other apes lack that makes us so unique.

I’ll tell you this: I would swap every gadget I own – my car, my laptop, the potential to fly to the moon – if I could wake up as a bonobo. No bonobo has ever been seen to kill another bonobo. There is very little violence towards females. The infants get an idyllic childhood where they do nothing but hang out with their moms and get anything they want. There is plenty of food. Lots of sex.

And yet, according to one of our studies, 75% of people have no idea what a bonobo is.

This isn’t really our fault. It’s been 13 years since Frans de Waal published Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape, and since then, there has not been one popular book published on bonobos until I wrote Bonobo Handshake which is out today.

Compare this to over 300 books published on polar bears, 240 books on chimpanzees, and 380 books on mosquitoes.

This is partly because bonobos are so rare. There are as few as 10,000 left in the wild (so when I say I want to wake up as a bonobo, it has to be out of range of humans). And they only live in one country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has suffered the bloodiest war since World War II.

But it’s also because politicians, scientists, and the media have been trying very hard to pretend they don’t exist. Why?

Bonobos have gay sex. For bonobos, sex is a mechanism to reduce tension. And you can’t talk about two females rubbing clitorises together until they orgasm in documentaries, intelligent design classes, or to right wing demographics who believe homosexuality is unnatural.

Bonobos are not considered to be family friendly, despite the fact that children can see people cut up, blown up and shot before 8pm on television.

When it comes to scientists, even scientists who I like and admire, only ever refer to ‘our closest living relative, the chimpanzee’. There is never any mention that we have TWO closest living relatives, the chimpanzee and the bonobo.

If scientists do speak about them, they are constantly trying to neuter them. Bonobo researchers get annoyed by bonobos’ reputation of being the over sexed ape, and are constantly downplaying the differences between bonobos and chimps. Even in cognition studies, despite Kanzi, bonobos are rarely tested for cognition because ‘we’ve already done this in chimps, why should we do it in bonobos?’

As for politicians, bonobos never had a chance. Acknowledging the existence of an ape who shares 98.7% of our DNA (suggesting descent with modification i.e. evolution), has homosexual interactions, and is female dominated, is completely out of the question.

Microsoft spell check doesn’t even register ‘bonobo’ as a word.

And so bonobos have remained, locked in the cupboard like an embarrassing relative.

As a lemur scientist once said to me, ‘So what? No one knows about sifakas’ (the dancing lemurs, even though they do, because of the cartoon Madagascar) ‘why should bonobos be any different?’

Because bonobos hold the key to a world without war. Their physiology, biochemistry, and psychology is set up to avoid violence. The fact that sex is their mechanism to reduce tension is irrelevant. We need to study the hell out of bonobos and use our big fat brains to find our own mechanism so we can live peacefully.

We’ve had 26 days without war since WWII. Despite cognitively knowing that we need to cooperate and get along (and in some instances we excel at this – but not  health care reform), our emotions get in the way.

We have to find a way to be more like bonobos. They share 98.7% of our DNA. What’s in that 1.3% that makes them the way they are? And if we can use hummingbird flight to make helicopters and cat’s eyes to make reflector lights, why can’t we use bonobos to make peace on earth?

2010 is going to be the year of bonobos. With my book coming out, Sara Gruenreleasing the first fiction about bonobos, and the bonobo genome due any day, expect bonobos to move to the front of public consciousness.

Stay tuned for more articles on how bonobos are gonna rock your world.

My new book Bonobo Handshake is out today. It’s available on Amazon, or through my website www.bonobohandshake.com.

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