Bonobo Handshake is a book that, at its broadest level, is a peek into the journey scientists take to figure out what makes us human. But it’s not an academic story; it’s a purely personal one. Author Vanessa Woods documents three main true-to-life event themes in the book’s trajectory. One theme is her relationship to her husband. She traces their romance, engagement and how they relate to each other as husband and wife. A second theme is that of war and violence – past and present. Most of the book takes place in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Woods uses Congolese people she meets through her work to tell the story of how war, political turmoil and tribal conflict affects the lives of individuals as well as bonobos. Bonobos are a small ape that are as closely related to humans as are their better known cousins, chimpanzees. The third theme follows the course of her husband’s studies on bonobos, which in the book, eventually become her studies too.
Woods is deft at describing scenes and sweeping the reader through the various thoughts in her mind. Her characters are all based on real people, but one gets the feeling she takes their strongest personality traits and amplifies them, so not everyone comes across as a three-dimensional person. Perhaps this is the result of writing an intimate book about people who are still alive, and with whom she is currently still working. It’s tough to spill the beans on a source when you have to show up to work with them the next day. But I think the character she sells short the most is herself. In the book, she consistently portrays what I can only imagine are her worst character traits: selfishness, pettiness and even haughtiness. I’ve spoken with Woods on the phone for a brief Q&A for the Charlotte Observer, and none of these traits leaped out at me. I found her to be energetic, well-spoken, extremely clever and full of witty humor. Which left me wondering why she chose to write her own character as she did. Was it a device for questioning what makes us human? Was it self-deprecating to a fault? Was it her way of making the Big Questions in the book more accessible to general readers at all levels? Woods is a research scientist at Duke University and works in the Hominoid Psychology Research Group (which her husband directs) and among other things on her website profile, she studies: “the comparative psychology of bonobos and chimpanzees. Particular interests are cooperation, xenophobia, and the development of socio-sexual behaviour in bonobos.” Yes she writes about herself as a someone more interested in gossip columns than scientific publications, which was a character difference that I found difficult to reconcile.
It is the bonobos who come across as having the deepest personalities and the deepest characters in this book. When you read it, you will feel as if you know Mimi, Isiro, Malou, Semendwa, Kata, Lomela, Kikongo, Tatango, Kikwit and Mikeno – all bonobos – better then you do Woods or her husband, Brian Hare. Hare is an assistant professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University and has, in Woods’ own words, become a darling of the media and somewhat of an up-and-coming superstar in academic anthropology circles. Yet, I never felt I got a fair shot at knowing him as a person, just an overview of his research. Woods writes about his studies on the bonobos as well as on chimps, and some of his personality quirks, but his character remains a sketchy background to the colorful lives of the bonobos. Again, I have to wonder if that is the true cost of writing about living relatives and co-workers – withholding depth from the reader in order to maintain peace and relationships with the sources. Or maybe it really is a device she used to portray the human-like lives of the bonobos.
The bonobos of Woods’ book live at a sanctuary called Lola Ya Bonobo in Congo and most have been rescued from horrible situations. Soldiers kill bonobos for meat, leaving small babies brutally orphaned. Hungry villagers capture bonobos alive and dead to sell as bushmeat. Wildlife traffickers capture them to sell to markets or as pets. Usually by the time a bonobo baby arrives at Lola Ya Bonobo, it has seen its mother’s body sliced with a machete or peppered with bullets. It may have had its own fingers cut off. It may have been stuffed in a small box and barely fed for days or weeks. In short, it has known cruelty beyond our wildest ken. And it would be incredibly short-sighted to comfort yourself by thinking that they are “just” wild animals and can not comprehend these violent, invasive acts. As Woods clearly demonstrates, the bonobo babies understand and have deep emotions. She writes about sadness, the desire to live, sexuality and humor in the bonobos. She writes about their personality quirks and how they relate to the staff at Yola. Sometimes, you forget she is writing about an animal because the antics and emotions are so like our own.
At the heart of the experiments, Hare and Woods are looking at how bonobos cooperate with each other. And their studies show that bonobos cooperate much more readily than do chimpanzees. The researchers are fascinated with bonobos because they do not have violence, sexual coercion, infacticide or warfare in their culture, as do chimpanzees. Instead, they use sexual encounters and acts to diffuse anxiety and tension and maintain peace in their groups. To a bonobo, sex is a greeting and an act of trust sort of like how we shake hands, but it’s a little more than that. It’s a way to not just greet someone, but to also build friendships and alliances. Woods asserts that we need to learn all we can about bonobos — their culture, their physiology, their psychology — in order to figure out a mechanism for humankind to live peacefully. I tend to be cynical, so I don’t know if I buy that we will ever delete warfare and aggression from human culture, but I do buy the argument that we can better understand our evolutionary history and what makes us human by studying bonobos.
Woods writes with a good dose of humor, and you will need it to get through the darker parts about violence against people and animals. But as I turned the last few pages, I still couldn’t help but wonder about how she portrayed herself. Perhaps in delving into the labyrinth of trying to figure out what makes us human, Woods was also exploring the parts of her personality she doesn’t like, and perhaps the way she portrayed herself in this book is one step along that path of accepting who she is. At a time when science needs to retain more women, I hope that she embraces her place in the field of anthropology and grows more comfortable showing her obvious intelligence. (Or maybe she already has, and I need to read more of her work.) She is clearly a gifted communicator and writer, and it would be wonderful to read a similarly intimate portrait of herself and her primate work where she doesn’t try to hide her own intelligence while telling what is, at heart, both an emotionally intelligent and scientifically intelligent story. But don’t take my word for it. Buy it, read it, and decide for yourself.