Book Review: Bonobo Handshake

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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 (some of which I wrote about on the old blog), I couldn't wait to check out the book. So I was super excited to find it waiting in my department mailbox this past Wednesday morning. By Friday night, I had read the book cover to cover.


So, here's the short review: read this book.

And, okay, watch this video:

Want more?

I brought the book back to my office and flipped it open. The first chapter is just one page long. It begins:

It's 2:17am in a Paris hotel room and my sweat is bleeding into the sheets. I've been staring for hours at the popcorn ceiling, little balls of stucco poised to drop like concrete rain. The walls boxing me in are as thick as a bomb shelter, built to keep out the noise of landing planes and overzealous couples in neighboring rooms.

The chapter ends:

We're supposed to get married and I've never hated anyone so much in my life.

And the second chapter begins:

I didn't always want to push my fiance off a balcony.

I knew that I was in for a wild ride; this wasn't your typical science book. It's not a book about science, per se, it's a book about living science. It's a story about the starts and stops and random things that get in the way of scientific research, both mundane and crazy. It's a love story and an adventure story with science and war-torn Congo as a backdrop. It's the ultimate story of one couple's attempts at finding work-life balance (as if there is such a thing). The chapters seamlessly integrate the story of Vanessa's evolving relationship with Brian, their joint attempts at asking really important questions about science, and the politics and war stories of the Democratic Republic of Congo. And of course the chimpanzees and bonobos are, in some sense, the stars of the show. Especially the bonobos.

I was one of apparently only a handful of people who already know about bonobos, our other closest cousins besides chimpanzees, so I was surprised to read about how neglected bonobos have been by the larger scientific community.

On her blog, Vanessa wrote:

As a lemur scientists once said to me, 'So what? No one knows about sifakas' (the dancing lemurs, even though they do, because of the cartoon Madagascar) 'why should bonobos be any different?'

Because bonobos hold the key to a world without war. Their physiology, biochemistry, and psychology is set up to avoid violence. The fact that sex is their mechanism to reduce tension is irrelevant. We need to study the hell out of bonobos and use our big fat brains to find our own mechanism so we can live peacefully.

We've had 26 days without war since WWII. Right now, there are 7 conflicts throughout the world killing over 1,000 people a year. In Congo alone, 1,500 people die every day. Despite cognitively knowing that we need to cooperate and get along (and in some instances we excel at this - but not health care reform), our emotions get in the way.

We have to find a way to be more like bonobos. They share 98.7% of our DNA. What's in that 1.3% that makes them the way they are? And if we can use hummingbird flight to make helicopters and cat's eyes to make reflector lights, why can't we use bonobos to make peace on earth?

And while you're reading the book, you start to understand the differences between bonobos and chimpanzees as Vanessa carefully explains the different studies that they conducted. You learn that chimpanzees are happy to cooperate in a food gathering task but only with certain others and only at certain times in certain situations; bonobos, on the other hand, are more than happy to share their food with just about anyone (study). You learn that upon being confronted with with a picture or recording of an unknown conspecific, chimpanzees have physiological responses that suggest a strong emotional fight-or-flight response. Their hands get colder and their right ears become warmer. Not so in the bonobo. You learn that even the baby bonobos who live in the nursery, and have no significant experience with adult bonobos engage in way more sexual behaviors than their baby chimpanzee counterparts. And since the babies couldn't have learned this from the adults, it probably reflects some innate set of behaviors. And then there's the study that Tory Wobber conducted, measuring the amount of testosterone present at baseline in bonobos and chimps (bonobos have WAY more, which is probably related to their increased sex).

It's not clear to me if the baby study or the testosterone study have been published yet...I can't find them online, and don't recall having read them before. Any help, Vanessa?

Watch Vanessa explain some of their research:

Bonobos are marked by cooperation; chimpanzees by conflict. How can two species so genetically similar be so different? It seems to relate to the availability of food. If you're a chimpanzee, you never know when or from where your next meal might come. Your position in the social hierarchy influences when and how much food you get from a given hunt or foraging trip. If you're a bonobo, you have plenty of food. The environmental pressure to adopt a more conflictual way of engaging with others is relatively non-existent. The way to reduce social tension is with sex. Sounds good to me.

So you're learning about all these fascinating differences between bonobos and chimpanzees, and you start thinking about which aspects of human nature seem to be shared with either species, and then you realize that you see aspects of chimp and bonobo behavior playing out in the intergroup conflicts of the wars in Congo. And you start to notice echoes of chimp and bonobo behavior playing out in the interpersonal conflicts (and their subsequent resolution) between Vanessa and Brian. And the brilliant part is that Vanessa doesn't explicitly spell out the parallels between the apes and humans, but it's painfully clear. When are we more like bonobos, and when are we more like chimpanzees? When you read about the conflicts in Africa over diamonds, gold, and so on - when you read about the terrible atrocities committed by people against other people - you can't help but think about chimpanzees. When you read about the way Brian totally calmed Vanessa down after a particularly stressful day of testing, you can't help but think about the bonobos.


And the other thing that becomes painfully clear is how important it is that we learn as much as we can from the bonobos, and that we work as hard as we can to protect the few remaining bonobos left in the world. Because somewhere in the 1.3% genetic difference between us and them are some pretty important clues as to how they maintain such a violence-free society.

And that's really why Vanessa felt compelled to write this book, I think. And it was such an important book to write; the only other English-language book about bonobos was written by Frans de Waal more than ten years ago. By the end of the book, you feel like you really know Vanessa and Brian, you feel like you really get the issues surrounding the war in Congo...though, I probably don't get it as well as I think I do...and I have to remind myself which Congo is "chimpanzee Congo" (Republic of Congo) and which Congo is "bonobo Congo" (Democratic Republic of Congo). Thanks, Vanessa, for a great way to remember which is which! You feel like you really know the individual bonobos who feature so prominently: Mikeno (pictured above), Lomela and Kata (also pictured above), Semendwa, Isiro, Malou, and all the others. And not only do you feel like you know them, but you care for them.

So, like I said before: read this book.

If you'd like to learn more, check out Vanessa's blog or website (where you can find LOTS more awesome bonobo pictures!)

You can also find book tour information on her website. I'm really sad she's not coming to Los Angeles, but see if she's coming to your city!

If you'd like to learn more about the only bonobo sanctuary in the world, Lola Ya Bonobo, and find out ways that you can help the them, check out their website:

2010 is the Year of the Bonobo. Expect lots more to come about bonobos in the coming week right here on this blog. And keep checking back because I'm donating whatever proceeds I receive from my blogging shenanigans for the entire month of June to help the bonobos at Lola Ya Bonobo.


More like this

If you're a fan of the Skeptically Speaking radio show, you should probably check out the interview with her they did last Friday (May 28, 2010).

The entire interview can be heard here:
or downloaded through iTunes from the Skeptically Speaking podcast (both options are free. Warning: the show is an hour long)

One of the funniest points was when she explained what the term "Bonobo Handshake" actually meant, and how unusual that is in light of the publisher's decision to use the picture that ultimately became the book's cover.

I will definitely put it on my list and even prioritize it. Though it will still take awhile, unless it is already an audiobook. I have read a little about the bonobos and found it very interesting, though I will admit that I also simply like the word "bonobo." Yes, I am rather silly like that sometimes.

Unfortunately, I also have rather more awareness of the conflict in Congo than I would like. At the same time, I am always interested in hearing how scientists manage to work in warzones. I have read of several anthropologists who have worked around wars and am continually amazed by the ability of people to work around war. I was particularly interested to read something about the experience of Dr. Zeresenay Alemseged, who found the skeleton of a young A. aferensis girl in the Dikika region of Ethiopia in 2000. He was not only working in an area rife with armed conflict, but he is also Ethiopian.

I also have a rather personal interest in partners who are also scientists in the same or related fields. My partner is working on her PhD in neuropharmacology (she may move into general or genetic neurobiology), while I am heading into neuropsych. While there is no particular intention to work together, I am not keen on dismissing the idea - and even if we don't, I am always interested in how science oriented couples manage.