I came across Woods' book in the course of doing research for an upcoming NOVA scienceNOW website on animal cognition, and it is indeed a window into the emotions and psychology of our nearest primate relatives, bonobos and chimps. But more than that it's a revealing look into the mind and heart of a young woman finding her way as a scientist and a conservationist.
The book is an appealing read even for people not usually drawn to science (hardcore science fans might, in fact, be turned off by the personal drama) and an eye-opening reality check for anyone interested in doing research with primates. I would love for my own young daughters to read it someday, but not much about this book is G-rated.
Let's start with the title. What, exactly, is a "bonobo handshake"? Here's a hint: "Kikongo ... sticks his penis through the bars, waving it wildly at the bonobos outside munching on papaya and manioc leaves, begging for a bonobo handshake." It turns out that when bonobos greet one another--even strangers from another troop--they are as likely to rub each other's genitals as we humans are to shake hands. (In contrast, when chimps encounter unfamiliar chimps, they often react with murderous rage.) As the primatologist Frans de Waal famously puts it, bonobos are the "make-love-not-war" primate.
Sex among bonobos is less about procreation than recreation--it's the means for resolving conflicts when tensions flare; it's the glue that holds social groups together. And while bonobo sex resembles a hippie lovefest, the sex life of chimps is more like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. What makes chimps and bonobos so different? And which of our primate cousins are we humans more like?