Tuesday, August 5, 2008

What I'm reading, Chapter 2

Today, it's Our Inner Ape, by Frans de Waal, an endlessly fascinating book about the behavior and lifestyles of our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, and what they can tell us about ourselves, from violent power struggles to sex.

Most examined are the two species of Chimpanzee, the more common Pan troglodytes, and its cousin, the interesting bonobo.

Chimps are probably easist for us to relate to, with their male dominated social hierarchies and political alliances (and backstabbing), and their more conservative sexual habits. Their propensity for brutal violence and inter-tribal warfare also echoes our own, but their capacity for empathy and kindness reassures us that our roots are not all bad.

Bonobos, on the other hand, while more humanlike in some ways (they often walk upright, and have longer legs than chimps), are strikingly unique in other ways. For one thing, they are incredibly sexually promiscuous (all bonobos seem to be bisexual, with homosexual acts seemingly as common as heterosexual), and females hold power over the males.

Although bonobos are a subspecies of chimpanzee, their temperament couldn't be more different. Violence still occurs, but their egalitarian societies seem to be much more stable than the constantly fueding chimps with their ambitious alpha males (the male-female ratio in most groups of common chimps is 1:2, evidence of frequent killings, while among bonobos it's nearly 1:1). Because sex is so common and casual, infanticide is practically unheard of in bonobo groups (while common among chimps). No bonobo male can be sure which offspring are his, so males must help defend all offspring, while the females band together to assert their authority.

This description only scratches the surface of the book; suffice to say that there are humbling moments throughout as we learn more about our hairy cousins. Much of our behavior, even in this modern age, can be traced to that of the great apes.

On a related note, a census found that there are 125,000 western lowland gorillas living in the Congo, considerably more than had been estimated previously. Good news.

No comments: