In times of universal crisis and brouhaha, what we really need is a sense of perspective. Our Inner Ape, written by a scientist with a lifetime's experience around apes, is perhaps the most humane treatment of the human condition you can read, for all that it is mostly about chimpanzees. So-called common (but extremely rare) chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) live in male-dominated societies characterized by shifting allegiances and extreme violence. So far, so Berreby. Their close cousins, the even less frequent pygmy chimps, or bonobos (P. paniscus), live in matriarchal societies where the stress is on reconciliation, all anxieties smoothed over by liberal applications of sex, in all possible combinations. If chimps are from Mars, bonobos are from Venus. Really? It's tempting to see these creatures as cartoon characters, caricatures of ourselves, done up as clowns or, more seriously, as metaphors for the human condition. De Waal plays this up to engage our interest but is at pains not to overdo it. Chimps and bonobos are not Looney Tunes humans; neither are they human ancestors, but creatures with a long evolutionary history of their own, which has provoked its own adaptive responses, its own repertoire of behaviors. Chimps are many things, but they are not One of Us.
The essential difference between humans and chimpanzees is that we form nuclear families, whereas chimps, so human in many ways, have no such institution. Although we stray from the path more often than we care to admit, human society is all about the age-old business of boy meets girl and sets up home under a roof, so much so that it explains such things as the size of our testicles, the manifest oddities of the female reproductive system, and why we prefer to have sex in private. At root, we define ourselves with reference to our families and closest kin and work outward from there. But we can learn a great deal more of our own humanity by comparing ourselves with something closely related but still Other. And this, in the final analysis, is the lesson of both books. Tribal allegiance means nothing unless there are other tribes out there against which we can get our measure.
This article was originally published with the title Tricky, Turbulent, Tribal.