Saturday, January 15, 2011

Forest cousins: tolerance & telephones

photo credit: Vanessa Woods, Bonobo Handshake

I suppose it shouldn't surprise me that a lot of people don't know about bonobos.  After all, when The Kid proposed to write a report about them in the 5th grade, which was now a long time ago, his teacher refused to believe there was such an animal, necessitating a phone call.  And when I mentioned this morning to a friend that I was reading a fascinating book about bonobos, she too had never heard of them.  

Probably not for long, though, since Sara Gruen, who wrote Water for Elephants, has a relatively new book out, Ape House, available in paperback in April 11.  

One of the many remarkable things about bonobos is that unlike chimps (and us, just by the way), they don't make war.  Instead, to resolve tension, settle disputes, generally get along, they have sex.  They are, as my Mammalogy teacher liked to refer to them, the Make-Love-Not-War ape.  They are matriarchal, perhaps not surprisingly.  They are critically endangered, not least of which because of our hunger for cell phones and other electronics that use coltan, a mineral ore found almost exclusively in the Congo.  Read more about bonobos at Friends of Bonobos and in Bonobo Handshake, a lovely book by Vanessa Woods which I couldn’t put down and just finished this afternoon.

One of my favorite passages in Bonobo Handshake comes right toward the end, and really sums up why these animals should be protected, for what we have to learn about them and what they can teach us about ourselves:

Six million years ago, our last common ancestor with apes split into three different lines, which would eventually become chimpanzees, bonobos, and us.  Along our journey, something extraordinary happened.  We grew big brains.  We tamed fire.  We started to talk.  But all that would have been for nothing if not for one simple thing – tolerance.

Tolerance is what allowed us to cooperate so flexibly.  Every one of our great accomplishments comes from sharing ideas, building on the thoughts and concepts of others. 

In our very first experiments, we found chimps could cooperate, but only after we controlled for tolerance.  Intelligence wasn’t the problem.  They were smart enough to know they needed help from someone else, but their emotions got in the way.  Somewhere during our evolution, human emotions changed so that even on a battlefield, two groups of enemy troops can come together to share simple gifts and songs. 

Of course, tolerance isn’t always something we excel at.  From the ear-temperature and picture studies, we know that chimps have an involuntary physiological reaction when they hear or see a stranger.  To a certain extent, we have the same reaction.  Even as babies, we prefer faces we recognize to those of strangers.  As we grow older, we tend to have negative reactions to people we identify as “them” and not “us.”  …In the temperature studies, we found that bonobos do not have a negative response to strangers.  They don’t seem to care whether someone is part of “us” or one of “them.”

So if bonobos are more tolerant in some ways than humans, why did they never develop our level of intelligence?  …Why aren’t bonobos ruling the world?

The answer is, they don’t need to.  …Bonobos have enough food.  They don’t hunt each other like chimpanzees.  The females are safe.  Babies aren’t killed by their own kind.  Why would they want to change anything?

  Most of the time, bonobos have no hunger, no violence, no poverty.  And for all our intelligence, our things, bonobos have the most important of all possessions – peace.

And that is why bonobos are important.  Because they hold the key to a world without war. …  If we lose bonobos, we will never learn their secret.

Feeling very grateful to the amazing people I “met” in Bonobo Handshake, doing such great work to protect these animals, our forest cousins.  We great apes have so much potential for good, for altruism.  Tolerance is the key.

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