November 2005

Barbara J. King


Our Inner Ape: Sexy, Violent, and, Yes, Kind

This book co-stars bonobos, so let’s get the sex stuff out of the way right up front. Anyone with a passing interest in primates knows that these apes of the Congo River Basin couple with partners of the same or the opposite sex; with adults, juveniles or infants; and in varied positions, all the while carrying out exotic (to some of us, anyway) actions. Google “bonobo” and the second hit (at least the day in October when I tried it) opens directly to a film clip called “Bonobos in the Wild, Swinging through the Trees & With Each Other” (see

No film clips are bundled into Our Inner Ape, but Frans de Waal titles a chapter “Sex: Kama Sutra Primates,” and its subheadings act as a bit of eye candy in themselves: “Penis Envy,” “Bi Bonobos,” “The Great Inseminator,” “Young and Nubile.” Bonobos, though, fascinate for reasons more diverse and complex than the sexy, and no scientist is better qualified than de Waal to tell us what these reasons are and why we should care about them. De Waal explores behavior of bonobos and of their better-known cousins, the chimpanzees, humans’ two closest living relatives, in order to get at “big questions” of human nature and society.

Stratigraphically speaking, three layers comprise de Waal’s approach. First, he describes how apes live, highlighting differences between bonobos and chimpanzees; next, he applies these behavioral divergences to understanding why we humans behave as we do; and finally, he ponders issues relating to contemporary human societies. Through this intellectual display, de Waal demonstrates why he is the current Alpha Male of American primatology. Decades of cutting-edge research on apes (and monkeys too) lend vibrancy to his words, and authority to his conclusions. It’s only a quibble that a good number of the anecdotes he recounts are by now familiar to loyal readers (see Chimpanzee Politics; Good-Natured; The Ape and the Sushi Master).

Even an alpha-male author needs an eagle-eyed editor, however, especially when he writes for the public -- and when he willingly rides the trajectory from describing ape behavior to explaining why humans live as we do (and at times even proscribing how we should live). My response to Our Inner Ape is four parts glowing admiration to one part nagging concern, a mix best explained by excavating the book’s layers in more depth.

Layer #1. De Waal explains that bonobos and chimpanzees express their intelligence through strategic problem-solving and emotionally-based responses to family and friends. Example after vivid example draws readers into an Apeworld where individuals plot revenge against their enemies, act compassionately toward scared friends, and trade favors with allies.

One of my favorite stories recounts no melodramatic power reversal or smutty sexual escapade but instead an event that quietly unfolded in the midst of a routine day at Arnhem Zoo in the Netherlands. Adult female chimpanzee Krom’s attention was caught by a series of tires that zoo staff had sprayed with water and hung on a horizontal log extending out from the apes’ climbing structure. Or rather, she zeroed in on one tire particularly, the last in the sequence: “Krom pulled and pulled at the one she wanted ... [she] worked in vain on this problem for over ten minutes, ignored by everyone except Jakie, a seven-year-old Krom had taken care of as a juvenile.” As soon as Krom gave up her attempt, Jakie walked over to the same spot: “Without hesitation he pushed the tires one by one off the log ...When he reached the last tire, he carefully removed it so that no water was lost, carrying it straight to his aunt, and placing it upright in front of her.”

I love this story. Interpreted in the context of data from other captive locations and from Africa, it says so much about apes: Jakie, in addition to carrying out some skilled tire-wrangling, empathized with what his aunt wanted -- and then made it happen.

Species-specific temperaments add spice and variety to the basic suite of ape abilities: “[T]he fundamental difference between our two closest relatives is that one resolves sexual issues with power, while the other resolves power issues with sex.” Full points if you grasped right off that de Waal refers respectively here to chimpanzees and bonobos; extra credit if you stick with me as I dig deeper still.

Layer #2. Rather than an inner ape (singular), de Waal says we have inner apes (plural), a state of affairs that accounts for the bipolar nature of being human: “To have two close relations with strikingly different societies is extraordinarily instructive. The power-hungry and brutal chimp contrasts with the peace-loving and erotic bonobo -- a kind of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Our own nature is an uneasy marriage of the two.” In fact, we are “one of the most internally conflicted animals ever to walk the earth.”

Does this mean, then, that humans have an innate nature, a finely blended hybrid of chimpanzee innate nature and bonobo innate nature? Here’s where hobgoblins of inconsistency creep into the text. When directly addressing the nature-nurture issue, de Waal writes in a nuanced way: “With their slow development and ample learning opportunities, apes are really not that much more instinctual than we are. Apes make lots of decisions in their lives ... humans and apes handle problems through a combination of natural tendencies, intelligence, and experience. It’s impossible to extract from this mixture what is inborn and what is not.” Later, he states flatly that “purely inborn behavior is impossible to find.”

Agreed; absolutely. I couldn’t fathom, then, why de Waal sprinkles the text with statements that come off as simple, innatist claims. In fact, as I read along, I came to think of de Waal as somewhat Jekyll-and-Hyde-ish himself. Despite the disavowal of inborn behavior just quoted, de Waal also says that scapegoating behavior -- when a low-ranking individual becomes the repository for aggression or blame in a group -- is “shared with so many other animals that it may well be hardwired.” Similarly, despite de Waal’s pinpointing the time period when he first “lost the ability to generalize about ‘the chimpanzee’ in the same way that no one ever speaks about ‘the human,’” he also writes, “The simple truth is that brutal violence is part of the chimp’s natural makeup.” Other such polar-opposite statements litter the book.

So what to make of ape nature? To take one example, the “peaceful mingling” that occurs between different bonobo groups-- lasting, in one case, an entire week -- is unthinkable for any chimpanzee population known to science. Chimpanzees are quite hostile to their neighbors. Too, most chimpanzees are more aggressive within their own groups than most bonobos are within theirs. Still, readers of Jane Goodall’s Through a Window will remember her take-home lesson: some male chimps are power-hungry and aggressive, but some others lack either interest in or talent for dominating and aggressing. As for bonobos, de Waal himself recounts an incident in which two mothers in the wild were “exchanging blows, rolling on the ground, with the beta female holding [the alpha female] down.”

The real lesson of comparative great-ape science is that no invariant chimpanzee nature or bonobo nature exists (and, of course, no invariant human nature either). Sometimes this lesson comes across with beautiful clarity in Our Inner Ape and at other times it’s deeply buried if not outright contradicted. A few tossed-off generalizations and indefensible remarks surprised me, too. De Waal writes, “Perhaps our evolution has stopped, whereas evolutionary pressures still operate on apes.” Despite the current media hysteria, I can’t say whether a bird flu pandemic is imminent, but I know that when viruses (think HIV and ebola) do “jump” to humans they act as evolutionary pressures on our species. Another example: “Women rarely think in hierarchical terms” (that one’s for you, evolution-of-gender students at William & Mary!).

Layer #3. At one point, de Waal develops a fascinating evolutionary argument on fairness and morality. At the book’s very end, he sums up: “In the group life of our close relatives, it’s not hard to recognize both the competitive spirit of capitalism and a well-developed community spirit. The political system that seems to fit us best would therefore have to balance the two.” Here, I’m less worried, as no scientific background is needed for readers to decide their comfort level with enormous cross-species leaps of this sort. It’s clear that de Waal intends his message about human society to be eminently hopeful, for he stresses -- at least he usually stresses -- the human ability to adjust flexibly to our circumstances.

I should reassert now my “four parts” glowing praise, for the illuminating aspects of Our Inner Ape definitely outshine the troubling ones. Here is entertaining popular science with a purpose. By convincingly arguing, for instance, that “imitation and empathy require neither language nor consciousness,” de Waal informs a number of debates going on across scientific disciplines. Even more significantly, the passion he brings to his subject can transform people’s curiosity about apes into action for apes. When you turn the final page of Our Inner Ape, log onto the internet and check out Trust me, it’s a more meaningful cyberstop than a bonobo-sex site; there, you’ll learn specific steps to take to apply the compassionate side of your inner ape to help the chimpanzees and bonobos, perched so dangerously on the edge of extinction.

Barbara J. King and her students study the nonvocal communication of gorillas at the National Zoological Park.

Our Inner Ape by Frans de Waal
ISBN: 1573223123
288 pages