Bonobo Handshake a must-read. Period.

Bonobo Handshake Book CoverI 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.

i-110029a34ec9344b9e6d2df1042e27f3-nursery-b-174-thumb-250x398-51436.jpgYou 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 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!

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A few weeks ago I emailed Vanessa Woods and asked her pretty please if I could review her book. After reading all of the bonobo and chimpanzee papers written by Vanessa and her husband Brian Hare (both now at Duke) over the years, as well as their research on domesticated dogs and silver foxes (…
Vanessa Woods (website, old blog, new blog, Twitter) will be reading from her new book "Bonobo Handshake" (comes out May 27th - you can pre-order on at the Regulator in Durham on May 27th at 7pm, at Quail Ridge Books on June 9th at 7:30pm, and at Chapel Hill Borders on June 12th at 2pm…
To get disclaimers out of the way, first, Vanessa Woods (on Twitter) is a friend. I first met her online, reading her blog Bonobo Handshake where she documented her day-to-day life and work with bonobos in the Congo. We met in person shortly after her arrival to North Carolina, at a blogger meetup…
Except it's a bonobo. Field and Stream magazine, 'The World's Leading Outdoor Magazine' has published their 'Best of 2008: Sasquatch Trail Cam Photos.' Thing is, the runner-up submitted by Pete Morgan of Bradford, Pennsylvania looks awfully familiar to my pal science author Vanessa Woods and I.…


Only one comment, and this is easily fixable: almost the first three paragraphs show in my browser as a single hyperlink, and the whole post is in italics.

Hm... I'm not seeing any issues when I look at it through a variety of browsers, and the code seems fine. Does it still look off to you?

I believe you. I am going to buy this book and I already know that if you like it, I will devour it. Very excited. Thanks!

By *littlestar. (not verified) on 22 Jun 2010 #permalink

I also have read this book just month ago and I also thinks that all the people should read it atleast once in a life. I have enjoyed reading and also got to know some facts about it.

Good pointer, thanks!

Though I'm a bit mystified by the claims here. I don't know that there are statistics on this, but it seems likely to this layman that among chimps and humans, chimps are the more aggressive.

On chimps: Doing the blog rounds is the observation that their border patrols strive to extend territory and kill other group's infants, which isn't how we typically behave; their sexual dimorphism is AFAIU greater and their sexual competition is (hence keeping large incisors and testicles).

On humans: We have succeeded in higher technology and population densities, arguing that we are much more socialized and thus evolved for less aggression; we are not displaying very much dimorphism as a species; one may argue (and indeed I believe it has been) that the diminutive incisors (and not full bipedalism) is what best defines "Homo".

It would be interesting to know what the arguments are that chimp society and biology reflect war and other territorial behavior of ours, in traits (including biology such as dimorphism) and frequency.

By Torbjörn Lars… (not verified) on 22 Jun 2010 #permalink

Torbjorn (@8): I don't think the idea is that we are "more chimp-like" or "more bonobo-like." I think there are echoes of both species in us. We can be as aggressive as we know chimps to be, and as peaceful as we know bonobos to be. But those are also caricatures of those species. Bonobos will totally lash out, but perhaps they have a higher threshold.

The key, I think, is that all three of our species are so closely genetically related, sharing just under 99% of our DNA. So given the vanishingly small genetic differences (though accounting for important environmental and experiential differences), I think it's really important to figure out what it is about bonobos, biologically or experientially (though more likely, it's an interaction between the two), that allows them to live in relative harmony. We should be able to use our big fat human brains to use that information in crafting a more peaceful human society.

Beautifully written review of a wonderful, very enjoyable book. One little mistake jumped out at me however, as one who has lived/studied in the Far East. The sentence, "They are the gentle Yang to chimpanzees' Yin," should be reversed to "gentle yin to Chimpanzees'yang." I hate to be nit-picky over this little error in an otherwise wonderful review. Thanks for covering Vanessa Woods' entrancing book.