Are bonobos really such peaceful beatniks? Is is true that they like to make love, not war? The truth is that nobody really knows. Ian Parker has a fascinating profile of the species, and our attempts to learn about the species, in the latest New Yorker:
This pop image of the bonobo–equal parts dolphin, Dalai Lama, and Warren Beatty–has flourished largely in the absence of the animal itself, which was recognized as a species less than a century ago. Two hundred or so bonobos are kept in captivity around the world; but, despite being one of just four species of great ape, along with orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees, the wild bonobo has received comparatively little scientific scrutiny. It is one of the oddities of the bonobo world–and a source of frustration to some–that Frans de Waal, of Emory University, the high-profile Dutch primatologist and writer, who is the most frequently quoted authority on the species, has never seen a wild bonobo.
In the end, our desire to discover a cuddly primate may overwhelm the biological facts. (Recent evidence from the field suggests that bonobos aren’t quite as compassionate as previously believed.) As one scientist tells Parker, “Scientific ideas exist in a marketplace, just as every other product does.”