Vanessa Woods is not a historian. She hadn't published a book in America before. And you can't exactly call it chick lit.
But she pulls off all three with "Bonobo Handshake," a page turner that journeys into the deepest jungle to tell a story of war, a peaceful primate cousin of man, and love - between woman and man and woman and ape.
Bonobos are an extremely rare species found only in Congo, Africa. They are as closely related to us as chimpanzees. But where chimps (and man) can turn violent, raping and murdering their own kind, bonobos defuse tension with sex, all kinds of sex.
The sex was all most people knew about bonobos - if they knew anything at all. Then this past winter Duke researchers published a study showing bonobos spontaneously sharing food with unrelated bonobos, a behavior not seen in unrelated adult chimps and which has to be taught to human children.
"Handshake" is the first mainstream book on bonobos n 13 years, says Woods, a native Australian who works with husband Brian Hare, assistant professor and director Duke University's Hominoid Psychology Research Group, which studies the psychology of human and non-human apes.
Woods will read from "Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo" at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Regulator Bookshop, 720 Ninth St. Ten percent of the book's profits will go to Lola Ya Bonobo, the sanctuary in Congo where she and Hare conduct their research.Why did you write this book?Woods:
I wanted to talk about bonobos in a way that would accessible to Americans. I had to include some of the personal stuff because that was what would draw people in. And then what happened was when I went to Congo I found out there was this war that killed millions of millions of people. It was the bloodiest war since World War II. I found I couldn't leave Congo out. That fact that bonobos, this most peaceful ape, was in the most war-torn country was really this poignant irony.You stumbled into your work with bonobos. You weren't a Jane Goodall acolyte.Woods:
Of course I knew of Jane Goodall. And I started with chimpanzees. Then Brian's like 'Oh, we're going to study this really rare ape in Congo," and I'm like what is that? I had never heard of it.
And of course Jane Goodall, she had this beautiful, mystical experience with David Greybeard, her first chimpanzee, who came and touched her hair. And my first experience was this small beautiful, male bonobo screaming his head off and wanting me to touch his penis. And that was not the same thing. I was looking at Brian the whole time saying, 'This is not what you promised to bring me to.'
I think people get really stuck on the sex with bonobos because sex is the way to maintain the peace in the group. It's not the most important thing about them at all.Is this a species that could be gone in 50 years?Woods:
They are much more endangered than chimpanzees. So if Jane Goodall says chimpanzees have 50 years, bonobos have 10.There's a part of the book where you talk about coming across this story of a woman who is captured by soldiers and just this horrific... [she is brutally murdered]. Woods:
That was The Economist in 2005.Were you in Congo yet?Woods:
No, we were just about to go.So you go anyway?Woods:
I was white after I read it. But Brian was like, what are you going to do? Are you just going to hang out in the apartment for two months?
And I thought of my father [a Vietnam veteran]. And I thought the one reason I might go is to just to try to figure out what war does to a country and its people. And if it did then I could understand why he became so damaged.I can read dogs. I've worked with dogs. I have a friend who can do that with horses. When you're with a primate, do you relate to that bonobo as something different from an animal.Woods:
A dog's eyes are really expressive. But when you look into a bonobo's eyes it's like looking into the eyes of another person. Some of them have this white sclera; you know how we have this white around our eyes? Also, they can stand four of five feet tall. So it's not like looking down at a dog or up at a horse.
And they have our hands, they have fingernails. They have very human lips. Sometimes I forget they're not people. Especially when they've done something incredibly human like. You'll be turning away and not paying attention and they'll grab your keys or they'll grab your sunglasses and put them on their head. They're 98 percent of our DNA, so there's not a lot that's different about them except they're covered in hair.What is the ongoing purpose of the work you're doing with them?Woods:
It's trying to figure out what makes us human.Do you interpret that action, such as the food-sharing experiment, or do you just observe and report it.Woods:
This is a bonobo giving their food away. A chimp would never do that. No way. ... It means that we're seeing something, a kind of sharing behavior we didn't expect to find in an animal.And what does that mean about the definition of what makes us humanWoods:
It means it's constantly changing.It used to be we were human because we made tools ...Woods:
There was tools, and chimpanzees use tools. And then it was language. But that bonobo Kanzi could type out 300 words on a keyboard and make sentences. It used to be this thing called altruism makes us human, but now bonobos do that. Anything you can think of, we seem to be finding them, on a smaller level. If you're looking for that one thing that makes us human, we haven't found it. Every time we think we've got it, it's ah, no, the chimpanzees do it, the bonobos do it.So when people do know about bonobos it's always about the sex. The hippy primates.Woods:
Yes yes, the make love, not war thing. But the thing is, people always ask me what it is that makes human intelligence. And that's what we started out to find: what makes human intelligence unique. But actually bonobos are the most intelligent because they've managed to live in a society that has virtually no violence.
When I wake up in the morning I know someone might kill me. In Durham, at the medical center, a lady just got shot; there are like two dozen murders a year. Bad things happen to good people, and there is always a chance that one of my own species will kill me. When a chimpanzee wakes up in the morning, they also know there is a chance they might be tortured and killed by another chimpanzee.
When a bonobo wakes up in the morning they don't have to think about that. And seriously I would give up everything - the computers, the cars, the living in a nice house - if I could wake up in the morning and know that me and my children, when I finally have them, will not have to live in that kind of world.
That's why bonobos are important and that's why we need to study them., because we need to figure out what they're doing. ...We need to use our gigantic brains to find a mechanism just like they have, and we need to use it because there have been something like 26 days since World War II without war and right now there are seven conflicts going on that kill a thousand people a day all over the world. And bonobos, they just don't have that. I mean, so you tell me, who's smarter?.Jane Goodall has broadened her message to talk about habitat preservation, the bush meat trade [that kills apes for food]. How do people who do this work maintain optimism in the face of the wars, the bush meat trade, the human population encroaching into natural habitat?Woods:
It's a good question. I think I really do this for the bonobos I know. ... The bonobos in that book are like my family. And so when would you give up trying to protect your family and your extended family? When do you stop? You just keep going.