Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Animals Like Us, Part II: Bonobo Handshake

I first heard about bonobos when Peter Gabriel started making music with them, to mild ridicule from his peers, back in the early aughts. Then they came up again in the book I read last year, Sex at Dawn by Ryan and Jethá. To me, they're by far the most fascinating (non-human) ape, so I'm always surprised at how many people have never heard of them. Vanessa Woods' 2010 book Bonobo Handshake has hopefully helped somewhat to remedy that.

If you know anything at all about bonobos, it's probably that they have a lot of sex. Sex with relatives, troupe-mates and strangers of every age and gender, in various positions (including missionary, which researchers once thought only humans were "advanced" enough to employ), and in all sorts of contexts. Sex is used to diffuse tense or exciting situations, to greet others, to ease anxiety, and to express affection. It comes as easy as a handshake, hence the title of the book.

All this sex has produced a remarkably egalitarian society. There are no lack of violent chimp stories, but you simply don't find the same among bonobos. Alliances of females, not alpha males, keep the peace. Woods tells of her unwitting role as a guest and researcher at the world's only bonobo sanctuary in the Congo in the midst of that country's endless string of gruesome wars and the bonobos dwindling population.

She makes frequent contrast between the bonobos and the chimps she had previously worked with, but the more searching and central question probes the human capacity for both aggression and empathy in light of the horrific stories of war she hears from the staff at Lola Ya Bonobo.

When we call someone an animal, we believe they're cruel and unfeeling and acting on baser impulses. But by this definition, humans are certainly more animal than bonobos. It's difficult to read the accounts of genocide, greed, global apathy and mass rape and that pepper Woods' account and not come out deeply ambivalent about human cooperation. One need not even look to a place like the Congo for distressing examples. Just last week, a woman jogging on the trail I frequently bike to work on was knocked unconscious and raped in the woods not two miles from my house.

Knowing the book was going to be about war and traumatized baby bonobo orphans, I hesitated to pick it up at first, but Woods' story is still upbeat and entertaining, especially when she describes the personalities and intriguing relationships of all the bonobos and staff at the sanctuary. Her message is also ultimately a hopeful one: bonobos are the living example that apes like us can live harmoniously.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Animals Like Us

Today I sat across the glass from Kyle, a 16-year old orangutan at the National Zoo while he sporadically twisted pieces of straw as if pedaling a hand bike, regurgitated his food, scratched his arms and looked sideways at his onlookers. He rapped gently on the glass with his fist and I couldn't help putting my own hand up to meet his.

Kyle / Smithsonian Photo
Kyle became famous last year for sensing the DC earthquake before it hit: rushing to the top of the "tree" in his enclosure, but I came to visit the apes because I'm in the midst of reading Frans de Waal's The Age of Empathy and wanted to see our cousins up close.

De Waal's gotten in debates with the likes of curmudgeonly atheist Richard Dawkins, whose book The Selfish Gene has, somewhat unintentionally, added fuel to the popular idea that animals are looking out for numero uno above all else. De Waal makes the case, much like the Cherokee legend of two wolves, that empathy is just as motivating a force as selfishness is for many primates. And that includes humans.

The book is filled with examples of self-sacrifice and evidence of empathy that de Waal's witnessed in his decades as a primatologist: chimps jumping into moats to save their zoo-mates despite an inherent fear of water, a Bonobo who collected a stunned bird that had fallen in its enclosure and tried helping it flap its wings, even dolphins saving dogs and humans.

De Waal's observations have a positive message for human cooperation, but they also serve to chip away at the ideological barrier between humans and animals. My friend Anoop, who got me into reading this book, wrote his undergraduate thesis on the topic. He quotes Paul Nadasdy:
It is perhaps not surprising that anthropologists should be reluctant to accept the notion that humans and animals might actually engage in social relations with one another. Despite the fact that humans are animals, Euro-Americans invest a great deal in maintaining a sharp conceptual distinction between humans and animals…the standard behavioralist assertion that animals are mindless automatons should be recognized as dogma that is not only unproven but that requires all sorts of theoretical contortions to maintain.
We like to believe, as we push our doublewide strollers through the great ape exhibit, flashing photos and  pointing out the "monkeys" to our children, that the creatures behind the glass are nothing like us. But researchers are closing the gap all the time, putting the "animal" in "human" and, as a consequence, making us a part of the environment too.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Book Review: The Great Inversion

Websites like The Atlantic Cities seem to publish new statistics on the Millennial generation's affinity for urban living at least once a week. Articles like The End of Car Ownership; It's Official: Downtowns are Booming; and Will Millennials Stay? Alan Ehrenhalt gives some context and nuance to this 21st century shift in urban thinking by profiling a number of unique American cities on the verge of change in The Great Inversion.

Ehrenhalt's thesis is that the post-war demographic shift is now seeing its inverse with young and affluent (largely white) people moving to the city while immigrants, minorities and poorer people are heading to the suburbs.

Despite this basic premise, the cities and neighborhoods Ehrenhalt visits are all facing unique challenges. There's New York City's Financial District that's seeing an unexpected conversion of office space to residential, but without the mom 'n pop shops deemed vital to a healthy community by famous urbanist Jane Jacobs. There's Phoenix and the suburbs of Denver, CO struggling to redefine themselves as "walkable, transit-oriented" in an era far removed from the post-war sprawl mentality they were born into. And there are places like Philadelphia ("Bostroit") that are thriving in the downtown core but remain crippled under a glut of abandoned buildings elsewhere.

It's clear that the urbanist revival of the past 15 years or so is still struggling to find its footing. Much of the development (in the suburbs especially) seems to capture the facade of city life, but not its heart. Reston Town Center in Virginia, West Hartford, CT's Blue Back Square and the rest of the new crop of polished suburban "downtown centers" seem more eager have people buy things than to foster civic engagement.

There are two factors that Ehrenhalt glosses over to the book's detriment. The first is the role that energy, climate change and resource scarcity play in the future of cities. He cops out by saying he's not an energy policy expert, a frustrating statement considering cities consume 75% of the world's energy and the enormous challenges they face in light of that.

And while race and inequality are part of his thesis, Ehrenhalt says that there's nothing much to be done about segregation by class, that it's "a fact of American life". In this way he brushes aside the idea that equality (or lack thereof) might be the most important factor determining the shape of our cities. Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá (it's difficult not to quote a Colombian mayor these days) puts it best: "A city needs to show as much respect for a person riding a $30 bicycle as it does for someone driving a $30,000 car." American cities just aren't there yet.