Badpuppy Gay Today

Monday, 03 November 1997

BONOBO The Forgotten Ape

By Frans de Waal & Frans Lanting

Book Review by Jack Nichols

BONOBO The Forgotten Ape, by Frans De Waal and Frans Lanting, University of California Press, Berkley, Los Angeles, London, 1997, 210 pages (including photographs) $27.97.

Its wisest to be willing to change one's mind especially if presented with new facts, or, at least, to openly alter some dearly held theory. In my case, after reading BONOBO The Forgotten Ape, a willingness to change feels particularly apt. Rather than subtracting from my worldview, this magnificent book has made a significant addition to perspectives I first propounded in a book published by Penguin in 1975, Men's Liberation: A New Definition of Masculinity.

In this critique of our culture's sloppy slant on male role-conditioning, I'd waxed impatient about comparisons of animal behavior to human behavior, calling the making of such comparisons the "scientific" equivalent of using divining cards and insisting that links between what animals and humans do are irrelevant.

That was 1975, fully 22 years before I discovered the Bonobos. Now, I must admit, there are actually apes--unlike the scrappier ones idealized by Desmond Morris (The Naked Ape) Robert Ardrey (The Territorial Imperative), Konrad Lorenz (On Aggression)-- who fit into the kind of human utopia my books envision.

Chimps and their cousins, according to Morris, Ardrey and Lorenz, are inherently aggressive. This was a message that didn't fit my perspective. I called the "science"-writers' dour messages "the intellectual's equivalent of Grusome Horror Comics." Sigmund Freud—whose ability, I wrote, "to weave webs of bizarre enchantment ranks him as Scheherazade's rival"—had written that: "men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, (or) who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness."

I replied: "What man, after reading these words and accepting them as gospel, could fail to utter a growl or two to measure up to his 'innate' aggressive nature? Having been taught by clergymen (about 'original sin')-- Freud, Morris, Lorenz, and other bogeymen-in-repute---that they have an 'essential nature,' a terribly dark and mysterious side that is nasty and will always seek to express itself, millions of U.S. citizens growl even when it isn't necessary. They are trying to show who they are. The truth is, however, that more than a few are suffering what Erik Erikson called 'an identity crisis,' and far from perceiving who they are, are grasping along with everybody else for clues about it."

If there is, in fact, such innate aggression in humans, and if there's actually a link between humanity and other primates, previous studies of apes purportedly supported the aggression theories. I saw these theories as theological hangovers—buttressing a unChristian Christian dogma, namely that humanity is innately (sinfully) violent—that there is such a thing as original sin. Thus, I threw out the baby and the bath water, refusing to accept any models of human conduct drawn from the animal world.

That was before Frans De Waal and Frans Lanting stepped forward with their groundbreaking studies of Bonobos, whom they call "the forgotten ape." After seeing some educational films these men have made and after reading their recently published research (replete with graphic color photography) I am now ready to admit—publicly—that my worldview is given meaningful support by these gentle, sociable animals. Yes, Virginia, I am a bonafide Bonobo Boy.

Most of us have never heard of the Bonobo, as De Waal and Lanting point out. This intriguing member of the ape family, nevertheless, is as close to having a human likeness as do their much better known relatives, the chimpanzees.

Chimpanzees are known for "male power politics, cooperative hunting, and intergroup warfare." Not so the Bonobo ape. Relationships between Bonobo males and females are egalitarian and peaceful. The Bonobo seems armed not so much by his or her fangs, but by pure empathy, an uncanny intuitiveness about what others are experiencing.

And ahoy! Feminists and gay liberationists—dig! Females, especially mothers, play pivotal roles in Bonobo society providing "a provocative alternative to the male-based model of human evolution that emphasizes man the hunter and tool gatherer."

Being the classic hippie fossil that I am, I feel wholly justified recalling—as I study these delightful, sweet natured creatures—a 60s counterculture slogan, "Make Love, Not War!" because in Bonobo society there's a preponderance of casual sex and, therefore, almost no war-producing tensions.

Monogamy is an unknown.

Bonobos, unlike other creatures, have sex BEFORE they have supper. They approach the "dinner table" relaxed and satisfied, unlikely, therefore, to fight over scraps.

What is even better, the Bonobo, the forgotten ape, is bisexual. One of the more charming photographs in this book shows two Bonobo females getting it on, their pink genitals expanding, looking lovingly into each other's eyes, while—interestingly enough—a couple of their offspring are curious witnesses to this lesbianism-in-action.

In another photo, two males enjoy rubbing their behinds together, celebrating what Walt Whitman called adhesiveness with erotic glee. Bonobos perform—with either sex--in every conceivable sexual position, including in their repertoire behaviors like oral sex and French kissing.

I fell in love with Bonobos most, however, while watching films of these creatures playing together. They know how to play, and from their examples human beings must inevitably learn. One cute little feller is shown playing alone—something Bonobos often do. He is a religious fundamentalist, no doubt, because—in an open space—he spins around and around, making himself dizzy—and then—plop. What fun, he thinks.

Bonobos shed an exciting new light, say primatologist De Waal and expert photographer Lanting, on "the role of sex in human society and overthrow established theories of the biological inevitability of human aggressiveness and the drive for power."

Bonobo The Forgotten Ape presents the most up-to-date information on the species, including comparative data from zoo populations and from the field and interviews with leading Bonobo experts. There are eight superb full-color essays that give rare views of Bonobos in their native habitats in the remote rain forests of what was previously Zaire (now Republic of the Congo) and also show them in a few zoos with captive populations.

This volume is a must on the bookshelf of any student of sexual behavior among primates. More, it is an essential text, a model, in fact, for those who look forward to the development of a kind of human culture based on the lifestyles—not of the rich and famous--but of a superior race, the adorable Bonobos.

Old biological theories need revision, and Bonobo The Forgotten Ape offers biological essentialists a major challenge. DeWaal and Lanting have provided, with this book, a priceless peek at basics that must be considered if human beings are to enjoy happiness and fulfillment.

In this case, although the anti-evolutionist, anti-Darwinist forces will freak, it may be –as we watch these little known ape ancestors—that we will be saying, "Human see, human do."

Now, if you'll just excuse me please, I'll chow down on this gorgeous banana.

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