Here we go again, I thought, yet another “where did humanity come from” book, a subject that was very heavily covered in 2005 when this book was published. Luckily, I was wrong.
It’s true that Our Inner Ape, byleading primatologist Frans de Waal, does provide plenty of comparison between human beings and the apes, but the search for where we came from is not really the driving force. Instead, de Waal’s love for the apes comes through strongly in his warm, well written description of how different groups of chimpanzees and bonobos, our two closest relatives in the primates, behave, and what we can learn about our own behaviour from them.
One of the useful things about this book is bringing out the differences between chimps and bonobos. Because it was only realized that bonobos were a separate species in the 1920s, there has been much less written on them than other great apes, yet it is so important, as de Waal emphasizes, to compare the aggressive approach of the chimps with a more considerate, caring attitude that typifies the bonobo.
As de Waal also points out, we habitually think of our aggressive side as our “animal” side, yet there is plenty of evidence from the chimpanzees and bonobos that much of our loving, caring nature is also reflected in the behaviour of these closest of primates.
Whether he’s relating the sad story of the brutal killing of his favourite chimp by a pair of competitors, allying to take the alpha position, or the approaches to power politics taken by two very different sets of primates, de Waal tells a captivating and fascinating tale.
The book does regularly relate to the relationship between the behaviour of apes and of human beings, drawing parallels and exploring differences – and some sections have more about humans than others – but even so the US subtitle of the book, “A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are” remains a little misleading. (Is it also worryingly reminiscent of a typical 1960s ad – “A leading scientist explains why you should brush your teeth!”) The primary focus of the book isn’t really us but the chimpanzees and bonobos, and the writing is far and above at its best when de Waal is painting a picture of these wonderful animals in action.