Bonobo Handshake

March 5, 2011

I read Bonobo Handshake (on my Kindle) after hearing the author interviewed on some radio show that I cannot recall or find online.  She totally cracked me up describing how she refused to pet the penis of a male bonobo who was waving it around demanding attention before he would participate in some research.  She said something like penis petting was not part of the study protocol.

Bonobo Handshake Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo is an excellent book, but I did not appreciate just how good it is until near the end.  Woods portrays herself as a shallow adventuress who has gotten in way over her head by following a self-absorbed greek god sort of fiancé into the Congo.  I’m not a fan of shallow adventuresses, but the bonobo subject matter was fascinating.  The human horrors of violence in the Congo and elsewhere, not so much.  Why did she keep switching back and forth from the cool science to the base violence of society?  Couldn’t I just have the science part please?

I never read or watch horror fiction because I have an overactive imagination, and I generally avoid reality horror as well.  But when someone you respect calls you to read some reality horror, and by now Woods had my respect, I feel duty bound to accept the responsibility of knowing.  I did not skim, I read it.  I counseled myself that the book is a memoir, and she obviously experienced this juxtaposition of science and war-torn society.

By the end, I received a truly unexpected gift.  The ear-temperatures study which indicated that chimps and humans react to strangers with fear, while bonobos react to strangers with pleasure, pretty much explains for me the sum total of human history, including all the major religions of the world and the concept of free will and developing good habits to lead you in the right direction when you are too stressed to exercise good judgment.    All that violence is sadly unavoidable as long as we have people freaking each other out and reacting in bizarrely creative and terrible ways.

It makes sense to react to a tiger with fear, but to another person?  We expect the worst and then, sometimes, revise our expectations.  Could we not expect the best instead and then revise our expectations the other way, when indicated?  Apparently that is what bonobos do.

The possibility that people are wired to love the familiar and fear the strange, rather than doing so out of pig-headedness, stupidity, or an unfortunate upbringing is oddly comforting to me.  It explains the uphill battle for goodness.  It does not spell doom.  It prescribes forgiveness.  It elevates the personal quest to form good habits and do good work.  Love thy neighbor because we are all easily motivated by fear and in need of a reassuring gesture and a kind word.

 

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