Sunday, June 08, 2008

Our Inner Ape

by Frans De Waal
When humans do something especially generous, kind, or empathetic, we like to describe these actions as being very "human." When we do something cruel or vicious, we often describe those actions as "animal." Frans De Waal would argue that neither of these familiar sides of humankind are unique to humanity. All apes exhibit startling levels of empathy, and not just with their own kind. At the same time, our closest cousins in the animal kingdom, chimpanzees and bonobos, can be as cruel as they are kind. De Waal divides his book into sections named Power, Sex, Violence, Kindness, and then talks about our own species as "The Bipolar Ape." Chimpanzees and bonobos have very different societies (bonobos are female dominant and generally less violent, using sex as a social, er, lubricant) but both are similar to us in many ways. Where do we fit in? Somewhere in the middle. Despite our species' unprecedented levels of complexity when it comes to communication and technology, there's very little motivating us that doesn't align perfectly with our fellow apes. But perhaps, by learning more about our place amongst our nearest animal relations, we can understand our own species better and hopefully bring out the best in ourselves.

No comments: