It's no secret that humans and apes share a host of traits, from the tribal communities we form to our irrepressible curiosity. We have a common ancestor, scientists tell us, so it's natural that we act alike. But not all of these parallels are so appealing: the chimpanzee, for example, can be as vicious and manipulative as any human.
Yet there's more to our shared primate heritage than just our violent streak. In Our Inner Ape, Frans de Waal, one of the world's great primatologists and a renowned expert on social behavior in apes, presents the provocative idea that our noblest qualities--generosity, kindness, altruism--are as much a part of our nature as are our baser instincts. After all, we share them with another primate: the lesser-known bonobo. As genetically similar to man as the chimpanzee, the bonobo has a temperament and a lifestyle vastly different from those of its genetic cousin. Where chimps are aggressive, territorial, and hierarchical, bonobos are gentle, loving, and erotic (sex for bonobos is as much about pleasure and social bonding as it is about reproduction).
While the parallels between chimp brutality and human brutality are easy to see, de Waal suggests that the conciliatory bonobo is just as legitimate a model to study when we explore our primate heritage. He even connects humanity's desire for fairness and its morality with primate behavior, offering a view of society that contrasts markedly with the caricature people have of Darwinian evolution. It's plain that our finest qualities run deeper in our DNA than experts have previously thought.
Frans de Waal has spent the last two decades studying our closest primate relations, and his observations of each species in Our Inner Ape encompass the spectrum of human behavior. This is an audacious book, an engrossing discourse that proposes thought-provoking and sometimes shocking connections among chimps, bonobos, and those most paradoxical of apes, human beings.
Noted primatologist de Waal (Chimpanzee Politics) thinks human behavior cannot be fully explained by selfish genes and Darwinian competition. Drawing on his own primate research on chimpanzees and bonobos--our closest animal relatives--he shows how much we can learn from them about ourselves: our qualities of "fellow feeling and empathy" as well as our power-obsessed, violent side. We are "bipolar apes," de Waal says, as much like bonobos as like chimps. The latter are known for their viciousness and "red in tooth and claw" social politics, but bonobos offer a radically different social model, one of peace and hedonistic orgies; de Waal offers vivid, often delightful stories of politics, sex, violence and kindness in the ape communities he has studied to illustrate such questions as why we are irreverent toward the powerful and whether men or women are better at conflict resolution. Readers might be surprised at how much these apes and their stories resonate with their own lives, and may well be left with an urge to spend a few hours watching primates themselves at the local zoo.
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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August 01, 2006
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