Skip to main content

Our Inner Ape – Frans de Waal ****

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.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…