I have spent about a week trying to figure out how to start this review. You see, I’ve had a lot more time than I thought to write it. I brought Vanessa Wood’s Bonobo Handshake with me on my vacation assuming that it would give me something to read during the long hours I’ve spent traveling between my various family members in New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts and California. I planned on writing this review next week sometime, once I’d finally managed to finish it on my long flight back to Hawaii.
The problem is, I started reading Bonobo Handshake the first night I arrived in New England. I finished reading it several hours later, because as cliche as it might sound, I simply couldn’t put it down.
Vanessa’s book is fantastic. I found myself turning page after page late into the night because I was caught up in the story that is equally about her passions and emotions, the war-torn politics of the Congo, and our other, lesser known closest relatives: the bonobos. Her writing is eloquent and yet simple and straightforward. She is so honest, open and personal that you can’t help but join her in her happiness, anger, anguish and joy. And, of course, you can’t help but fall in love, like she has, with our estranged genetic cousins that, as a species, we know so little about.
You see, everyone knows that chimpanzees are our evolutionary next-of-kin. Book after book and study after study have focused on chimpanzees and their patriarchal, war-like societies that reflect so much of our own. But most people have never heard about our other closest kin, the bonobos, even though they are just as closely related to us as chimps. Though they’re hard to tell apart by looks, bonobos are entirely different from chimps. Women work together to maintain peace and order. They’d literally rather make love than war. They are the gentle Yang to chimpanzees’ Yin.
Through Vanessa’s eyes, you really see how akin we are to both of these primates to which we are so closely related. We are competitive and aggressive like chimpanzees, yet we’re loving and kind like bonobos. The two represent both sides of our nature which we have sought for so long to understand and decode. In studying their behaviors and their minds, we are less analyzing animals as peering into mirrors where we, ourselves, are reflected in surprising and sometimes upsetting ways.
The moment I read the last page, I knew writing this review would be difficult. As a critic of papers and books, I find it much harder to review something that I can’t tear to pieces. In part, I think it’s because I feel like you won’t believe me. You’ll think my anecdote about reading it cover to cover in a single night is some trite exaggeration. In that I am envious of Vanessa, as she makes it seem so effortless to write prose which is instantly credible, no matter how incredible the events may be.
The trouble is that the best review I can give is so simple, it doesn’t seem worthy. Go read this book. It is beautiful, heartwarming and heartbreaking, managing to effortlessly blend her own experiences with the science of studying primates and the political and social history of the Congo.
Bonobo Handshake isn’t just a book for people who know and care about bonobos, but those who read it inevitably find that they suddenly fall into both categories. It is a story of tragedy and triumph, of scientific and self discovery. There is a great quote by Baba Dioum which says “In the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand.” Through Bonobo Handshake, you will gain that understanding, and hopefully, you, too, will see why we must protect these last reflections of our evolutionary history that we know so little about.
If you would like to help bonobos, please visit www.friendsofbonobos.org. Also check out Vanessa’s Website for more information about the book and her and her husband’s work with bonobos. You can also follow her blog, Your Inner Bonobo and her twitter feed.
Also, Jason Goldman of The Thoughtful Animal has recently done some great research reviews on the scientific literature available on bonobo behavior. Moreover, all of his money gained for blogging this month are being donated to help the bonobos at Lola Ya Bonobo, so now is the time to check out his site so that he gets paid more for June!