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Our Inner Ape


Hello readers,

Sorry to have been away for a little bit.  I’ve missed you, but I’ve been a little busy working on my other blogs.  Please do check out my little book in installments (Skirting Disaster: Anomie and Noémie), the first of which I have published on skirtingdisaster.wordpress.com.  The next installments will be posted in small increments.

In the meantime, I am still reflecting, as always, on the human condition.  Why we are the way we are.  Why we can behave with such cruelty and also with such kindness.  A few days ago, I literally gobbled up Frans De Waal’s book (published in 2005), Our Inner Ape.  (Sub-title: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are).  

This fascinating book explains in detail how the ambiguities and contradictions of human nature owe very much in our best and worst traits to our primate cousins, the closest to us genetically being the chimpanzees and the bonobos.  As a scientist and student of human nature, the author is very articulate (but also easy to read) in his explanations of animal hierarchies, social relationships, and under which conditions displays of cooperation, reciprocity, aggression, and empathy are manifested. The issues so central to human life: power, sex, resources (food), violence, and kindness are all treated in detail.  He also explains how the nuclear family is what makes humans different from these apes, and not so much tool making or language.  

You might wonder what draws me to try and understand human behavior.  After all, I am a human being, am I not?  Well, sometimes I wonder.  Growing up, I didn’t receive much of any reinforcement from the group – from my nuclear family or beyond – to help me to understand what my role in life was or how I fit into the group.  My nuclear family is matriarchal, and the structure was simultaneously rigid and non-existent.  When I read about the chimps and bonobos, I understand how peacemaking and peacekeeping occurs.  Each individual knows his or her place within the group, and certain behaviors are expected in order to support cooperation and the stability of the group.  We all fear exclusion from the group more than any other punishment.  And so, in order to avoid this extreme of punishment, we concede to leaders if we are underlings, or if we are in a leadership role and wish to remain in that position of power, then we must take into account the level of satisfaction or dissatisfaction that our choices and decisions cause for the group.  As hard as it is to be low on the totem pole, Mr. De Waal also makes clear with many descriptive examples just how stressful it can be to be at the top, and how important a good strategy is when staying at the top is desired.

In my family of origin, there was only one choice; my family was a microcosm of a military dictatorship.  If anyone dared express any opinion or plan or desire which contradicted that of the great leader, then that individual was excluded from the group…forever.  I was aware of this price to be paid at a young age, and I was unwilling to pay that price in order to stay in the group.  I had plans, dreams, and desires for my life, and I was unwilling to give those up for the “security” offered by the group.  And so I have been an outsider, all my life.  They say that humans are social animals, and I suppose I am more than a little bit social.  I do enjoy the company and proximity of other humans at times.  I crave cuddling, warmth, affection, sharing, cooperation.  But I must also admit that my early life experiences as well as subsequent mishaps with other less than trustworthy humans (perhaps due to my lack of social preparedness and related skills) have made wading in the waters of relationship a bit dicey for me.


Bonobos sharing affection with an infant

Back to the apes, our furry cousins.  These intelligent animals, the chimps and the bonobos, lead very different lives in quite different societies.  If I had to join one group, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the bonobos.  These very sexy, sensual animals, creating social cohesion through physical (grooming) and frequent sexual contact, both homosexual and heterosexual. Often, the purpose of this sexual contact is to release tension, create ties, and for personal or mutual pleasure.  Like grooming, it promotes relationships and social cohesion. Most of the time, the bonobos seem to be quite gentle animals, when compared to their close relatives, the chimpanzees.  The bonobo’s power structure is matrilinear; the alpha male exists, but only as son of the reigning female.  Females always eat first, for example, and distribute food and resources as they see fit.  Violence within the group and between other neighboring communities is less common and less extreme (but not unheard of) among bonobos as compared to chimps, but this is because of their power structure as well as their physical bodies.  Chimps are more territorial, and as males, they must struggle to preserve their gene pool by keeping “foreigners” out and away from their females. They tend to kill or are easily prepared to kill all those who are not genetically related to them, including infants.  Bonobos mate easily with just about anyone, and because the females predominate, there is no competition to preserve lineage, which is passed down from mother to child.  The author explains how human societies evolved, increasingly controlling females and developing monogamous relationship styles and nuclear families in order to preserve power and lineage (in the days before DNA testing, a male could not be sure which children were his unless he controlled his wife.) Since other males had the same preoccupation of ascertaining exactly how many children were truly their own, they had to cooperate with one another to keep the peace and make sure that their neighbor could be trusted.


Chimpanzees grooming

In short, the author makes clear that each of these social styles (male or female dominated) has its advantages, and that we have inherited from both, including qualities and flaws.

 All primates render services to one another and each individual is aware of his or her place within the group.  The females, like humans, seem talented at peacekeeping, trying to smooth feathers to prevent conflicts from escalating and often mediating when they observe escalating tensions.  However the males, and in particular the chimps, familiar with violence, are more skilled and willing peacemakers.  After a violent confrontation, the author explains that the males are much more willing to initiate peacemaking gestures, moving on without holding onto a grudge.  Like humans, however, it would seem that these apes have a great memory for both slights or benefits endured or obtained and scores are kept.  It is clear that social harmony depends on social structure and the awareness and desire for cohesion and cooperation by all members.

Basically, it is reassuring to read about these primates, because it helps make sense of human social structure for me.  I feel that people, especially in the United States, sometimes forget why we live in groups.  People can be so rude at times.  The bottom line is that we do all need each other in order to survive.  We all have specials skills, unique personalities, but also unique flaws and needs that others can comfort or complement.  

So thank you, Mr. De Waal, for writing this book and for the great work that you do.  It warms my heart to feel that it is a natural imperative that we, as primates, do all need one another, and that we are capable of creating balance and harmony despite our contradictory natures.  After all, if the chimps and bonobos can figure out solutions to their problems and power struggles, we should be able to do so as well.


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