We have long attributed man's violent, aggressive, competitive nature to his animal ancestry. But what if we are just as given to cooperation, empathy, and morality by virtue of our genes? What if our behavior actually makes us apes? What kind of apes are we? From a scientist and writer E. O. Wilson has called "the world authority on primate social behavior" comes a fascinating look at the most provocative aspects of human nature-power, sex, violence, kindness, and morality-through our two closest cousins in the ape family. For nearly twenty years, Frans de Waal has worked with both the famously aggressive chimpanzee and the lesser-known egalitarian, erotic, matriarchal bonobo, two species whose DNA is nearly identical to that of humans. De Waal shows the range of human behavior through his study of chimpanzees and bonobos, drawing from their personalities, relationships, power struggles, and high jinks important insights about our human behavior. The result is an engrossing and surprising narrative that reveals what their behavior can teach us about our own nature. "An informative and engaging work." --Library Journal "De Waal offers vivid, often delightful stories of politics, sex, violence and kindness in the ape communities he has studied to illustrate such questions as why we are irreverent toward the powerful and whether men or women are better at conflict resolution."--Publishers Weekly "Never has he [de Waal] written better on his great theme than in this absorbing overview of power, sex, violence, and kindness among apes--and humans."--Booklist "Sklar adds just a touch of a smile to his sonorous voice, conveying friendliness, warmth, and humor."--AudioFile Magazine
What I don't understand is why the author repeatedly takes a stand against the (popular) evolutionary literature of the last 30 years (characterizing it as focusing only on the brutish, selfish aspects of natural selection and keeping a blind eye to the fact that altruism, reciprocity and love exist). I personally really like books like The Selfish Gene and Darwin's Dangerous Idea and I found the ideas presented by De Waal to be in no way in conflict with the ideas from these books. In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins too stresses that the harsh, emotionless character of the selection process does not necessarily produce behaviour that is brutish ans selfish towards other beings. In the race for reproduction, morality, care for others and altruism can be viable strategies. Axelrod's The Evolution Of Cooperation (1984) is about exactly this comforting observation: moral and caring behaviour is in no way evolutionary naive.
Back to De Waal's book: apart from the slight irritation over the strawman argument against Dawkins c.s., I truly enjoyed this book. I have gained many new insights in the reasons behind certain behaviours in both humans and animals. I hope to be able to see chimpanzees or bonobo's in the wild some day and I will definitely reread this book then. Until then, the apes will claim (even) more time of the zoo visits I like to make. The chapter on chimpanzee power politics is a masterpiece. The author has an admirable ability to mix scientific observations and very personal, emotionally touching stories into a convincing presentation of a theory. He always makes sure that anecdotal evidence is marked as such and used as an illustration only. But what nice illustions they make!
All in all, I loved this book.
Although the book deals with science, psychology and behaviour it is insightful and not at all what I would consider a “dry read”. It really does not matter if your beliefs lean towards creationism or evolution, this book is informative and enjoyable.