This little ape could teach us peace

CorrespondentMay 24, 2010 

Vanessa Woods, 32, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University, writes Your Inner Bonobo at http://www your- inner- bonobo . Her book, "Bonobo Handshake" (Gotham), goes on sale Thursday at The Regulator Book shop in Durham. (Details: entertainment/books .) She tweets as @bonobohandshake.

Questions and answers have been edited.

Q: What can bonobos (a relative of the chimpanzee) tell us about ourselves?

For the last 40 years, all anyone has looked at is chimpanzee psychology and chimpanzee behavior. Chimps have many sides of them that are like us: They are empathetic; they show emotions that we think of as grief and love. But they have this darker side, too. They hunt each other; they have a type of warfare; females get beaten. But we share just as much of our DNA, 98.7 percent, with bonobos as we do chimpanzees, and they have not been studied nearly as much. Bonobos are female dominated. They don't have any wars. They are very peaceful. I would say bonobos are more intelligent than chimps because they don't have violence within their species.

Q: Why don't we typically see bonobos on the human family tree?

The only time people heard about them was in the 1980s, when Frans de Waal saw these animals having all kinds of sex. People could not handle it. We have to understand that they have a mechanism to live peacefully. It just happens to be sex. As humans, we have these big brains - we have iPhones and cars and can fly to the moon - yet we cannot live in peace. We need to find out everything we can about bonobos so we can figure out a similar mechanism for ourselves. Our mechanism obviously won't be sex, but we have to figure out a way to live in peace. And it's not just their social structure; their biochemistry is different, too, in terms of how they deal with stress.

Q: What is your new book about?

It's the story of our research. It's the story of my husband, Brian Hare, and me and how we met, and it's all set against the background of the Congo and the horrible violence that has taken place there.

T. DeLene Beeland:

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