Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Bonobo Handshake

A memoir of love and adventure in the Congo
by Vanessa Woods
Finished September 2010

I was without the internet at home for a while, so I'm just getting around to writing about this book. It's too bad, because I had a lot to say about it when I just finished reading it. Now I've kind of forgotten all of the details of what I wanted to say.

I picked this book up after browsing the new book shelf at the library. I wanted to read about bonobos. That's what the book is about, but I learned so much more.

Vanessa Woods is a research scientist and journalist. After graduating from college she began volunteering for the Taronga Zoo in Sydney. While there she heard about a "chimp island" for orphan chimpanzees.

"My job was to lead a team of Ugandans on a census, for which I had zero qualifications. Debby hired me only because the real primatologist got malaria and pulled out at the last minute."

She became enamored of a chimp named Baluku. She also fell in love with a real primatologist named Brian Hare. They married and she became more involved in primate research through her husband's activities.

Then they went to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to study Bonobos and to work on answering the question, "What makes us human?" Vanessa wasn't thrilled. She was more interested in going back to Uganda to study chimpanzees. What she learned while in the DRC about humans, bonobos and chimpanzees would change her life.

This book made a big impact on me. When the author arrived in the DRC she wasn't very aware of the political history nor of the current events of the Congo. She arrived during a very violent and politically unstable time. The stories she heard about the violence inflicted upon people are horrible. To think that people can be capable of doing such terrible things to other people is inconceivable. What makes this interesting and worth enduring the stories of war is the contrast between people and the chimps and bonobos. The chimps are also capable of inflicting violence on their own kind. Bonobos, however, are peace-loving. This isn't to say that they don't have squabbles with each other or that they don't treat each other badly. But squabbles and bad behavior are much different from true violence and cruelty.

We share 98.7% of our DNA with bonobos. We share 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees (a recent National Geographic article says 96%). We can see so much of ourselves in both. Woods' book is as much about humans as it is about the apes she studied.

This is such a fascinating book. It certainly gave me so much more than I expected. It made me sad, happy, horrified, amused and enlightened.
Bonobo Handshake official site
Your Inner Bonobo - Vanessa Woods Psychology Today blog
Friends of Bonobos - the support site for Lola Ya Bonobo, the world's only bonobo sanctuary.

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