Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Vanessa Woods on her memoir Bonobo Handshake

We interview Vanessa Woods, author of Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo.

What are bonobos?

For the last forty years, we humans have compared ourselves to chimpanzees. It turns out chimpanzees have a type of culture. They make tools. They use gestures to communicate. They have sophisticated political systems and emotions that can only be described as love, grief, and jealousy.

Even the dark side of our nature that we thought was exclusively ours, such as hunting and war, is found in chimpanzees too. A chimpanzee community, similar to many human communities, is male-dominated. Females can be raped, infants might be killed. As a chimp, you have more chance of being killed by another chimp than by anything else.

But we have another closest living relative.

Bonobos look almost exactly like chimpanzees, except they have black faces, pink lips, and hair parted down the middle. They only live in one country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Their populations are so scattered that it is impossible to know how many there are, although current estimates are between ten thousand and forty thousand.

Most people barely even know there are two “closest living relatives” to humans. Like an embarrassing relative, bonobos are frequently missing from the family tree. According to Microsoft Word’s spell-check, bonobo isn’t even a word.

In the 1980s that Frans de Waal published a study of bonobos in the San Diego Zoo. He saw tongue kissing, fellatio, and a kama sutra of sexual positions. Before de Waal, people thought that nonconceptive sex, or “sex for fun,” was unique to humans. But bonobos were having sex in all sorts of crazy ways, including the missionary position, which no one had ever seen in an animal. De Waal also concluded that bonobos were female-dominated and that compared to chimps, they committed very little violence. He suggested that here was another model for human behavior, one that didn’t include war and bloodshed.

How did you come to find yourself studying bonobos in the Congo?

It was a series of happy accidents. Like most people, I had no idea what a bonobo was. Then I fell in love with an anthropologist whose dream was to study bonobos in Congo… so off we went!

In what ways are bonobos and chimpanzees different to work with?

Chimpanzees are so focused on the task. They’ll sell their soul for a banana. If they get the answer wrong, sometimes they’ll get so upset that they’ll refuse to participate. Bonobos are completely different. You usually have to have a quick ‘bonobo handshake’ before you start. And then they’re more likely to do cartwheels around the room for half an hour rather than do the test. So we have to make sure the experiments are fun, more like games than work. We can’t force anybody to participate!

Do you have a favourite bonobo?

Vanessa with Kata
Yes! Her name is Kata. She is the sweetest bonobo ever, and she gives me a great big hug every time I see her.

Why is protecting bonobos so important?

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.

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.

As a lemur scientists 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. Right now, there are 7 conflicts throughout the world killing over 1,000 people a year. In Congo alone, 1,500 people die every day. Despite cognitively knowing that we need to cooperate and get along, 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 Gruen releasing the first fiction about bonobos, and the bonobo genome due any day, expect bonobos to move to the front of public consciousness.

What made you want to write this book?

I wanted to write this book because I was puzzled by the scientific community’s rejection of the bonobo’s uniqueness, their sexuality, and their place in the wider question of what makes us human. I’m tired of meeting blank stares of people when I say I work with bonobos. I want everyone to know what bonobos are!

What’s next for you?

Right now, I’m enjoying talking about bonobos to everyone, from the New York Times to the Adelaide Advertiser. I’m hoping as more people read the book, more people will realize how important they are, and why we should care about their future. Then I suppose it’s back to Congo☺

Bonobo Handshake is available in all good bookstores. To read more about Vanessa, you can visit her website or her blog.

1 comment:

  1. In regards to the sexual positions of bonobos, it's not too surprising now. Masturbation has also been widely documented among primates in the last 20 years.