Support Provided ByLearn More

The Bonobo in All of Us

"Bonobos help us to see ourselves more in the round," says Frans de Waal, a primatologist at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta. In particular, he says, we can learn as much about human evolution and behavior by studying the sensitive, peace-loving bonobo as by studying the more violent chimpanzee—both of which share more than 98 percent of our DNA. In this interview, de Waal explains what the ape he calls the "make-love-not-war" primate can teach us about who we are—and why, for this reason alone, it's vital to protect this highly endangered close relative of ours.


Receive emails about upcoming NOVA programs and related content, as well as featured reporting about current events through a science lens.

Bonobos have a "high emotional awareness" of other bonobos and of people, Frans de Waal says—one of many human-like qualities that set the bonobo apart from all other animals, including chimpanzees.
Photo credit: © BBC

Yin and yang apes

Support Provided ByLearn More

NOVA: Can you recall your first encounter with bonobos? What was it like?

Frans de Waal: I first saw them in 1978. At the time, I knew a lot about chimps, because I had been studying them. I saw the bonobos at a zoo in Holland, and I thought immediately, they're totally different. The sense you get looking them in the eyes is that they're more sensitive, more sensual, not necessarily more intelligent, but there's a high emotional awareness, so to speak, of each other and also of people who look at them.

What made you decide to study them?

At the time, I was interested in reconciliation after fights, and I wanted to know how bonobos did it compared to chimpanzees. Very soon I discovered that they were much more sexual in everything they did, and that interested me—not so much for the sex part, even though that became a very hot topic, the peacemaking-through-sex thing—but much more how they have such a peaceful society, because they are much less violent than chimpanzees.

You were initially entranced by chimpanzees as the model for human ancestry. So just how seismic were the revelations that came out of Gombe [the Tanzanian national park where Jane Goodall has studied chimpanzees since the 1960s] that they engaged in murder and infanticide?

The first news about the Gombe murders—basically chimpanzees invading the territory of other chimps and killing them off—was very spectacular, because at that time there was a big debate about aggression in humans. One school claimed that we were inborn killer apes, and another school claimed, "Yes, maybe that's true, but look at the apes, they're all very peaceful." So, when Jane Goodall came along with her stories of chimps not being so peaceful, that overshadowed that whole view, and we ended up with one coherent view of: Chimps are aggressive, we are aggressive, our ancestors must have been aggressive, and so we are basically killer apes. That was the story, and it's still the story today for many scientists.

Chimpanzees are more violent by nature than bonobos, which de Waal calls the "hippies of the primate world." Here, a chimp displays a fear grin gesture of submission.
Photo credit: Martin Harvey © Gallo Images/CORBIS

It's a pretty negative view, isn't it?

Yes, we tend to have a negative view of ourselves. Or let me say it this way: Everything we do negatively is associated with our biology; we blame that all on biology. And everything we do that is nice, or when we're altruistic and empathetic, and so on, we don't blame that on anything, we claim that as our own unique human nature. So, the stories out of Gombe on the chimpanzees confirmed that negative biological view that we have of ourselves as purely competitive, purely aggressive. And when the bonobos came along later, they didn't fit that view.

Bonobos tell us about the possibility of having peaceful relationships.

Yes, in the early 1970s there was this revelation from Wamba in the Congo that bonobo neighbors had met and after initial wariness had acted quite peaceably together. Just how momentous was that discovery?

Well, in the context of us being territorial and chimps being territorial and everyone believing that we are killer apes, when the Japanese scientists [led by Takayoshi Kano] came along with the story that bonobo groups just mingle—and not only do they mingle, but they have sex together, the kids play with each other, they groom each other afterwards, they travel together sometimes—all this was absolutely shocking and didn't fit the image that we had of where we came from.

And it was totally ignored. It's very interesting: When something doesn't fit your thinking, the best way to deal with it is to shove it out the window and ignore it, and that's what the scientific community did for about 20 years.

But given our propensity for war and violence, aren't we much more like the chimpanzee in our behavior?

If you look at human society, it is very easy, of course, to compare our warfare and territoriality with the chimpanzee. But that's only one side of what we do. We also trade, we intermarry, we allow each other to travel through our territory. There's an enormous amount of cooperation. Indeed, among hunter-gatherers, peace is common 90 percent of the time, and war takes place only a small part of the time. Chimps cannot tell us anything about peaceful relations, because chimps have only different degrees of hostility between communities. Whereas bonobos do tell us something; they tell us about the possibility of having peaceful relationships.

two bonobos
Bonobos, like these sisters at the San Diego Zoo, can teach us a lot about how to live together peaceably, de Waal says.
Photo credit: © Frans de Waal

We're a little of both

Yet chimps are not all bad and bonobos all good, of course. You've said that chimpanzees are from Mars and bonobos are from Venus, but it's not that clear-cut, is it?

Yeah, sometimes I say that, and that's, of course, a big stereotyping of the two species. It is true that the chimpanzee is dominance-oriented, violent, territorial. But it's also cooperative in many ways, and so that side is sometimes forgotten. The bonobo is sensual, sensitive, sexual, a peacemaker, but also can have a nasty side, and that's sometimes forgotten. So both species are sort of the ends of the spectrum, and we fall somewhere in between. Clearly, we have both of these sides in us, and that's why I sometimes call us "the bipolar apes."

So do you think we're more bonobo or more chimp?

Uh, I usually say that we're both. Is that a good answer? No, you want a choice!

Well, if you had to make a choice.

I would say there are people in this world who like hierarchies, they like to keep people in their place, they like law enforcement, and they probably have a lot in common, let's say, with the chimpanzee. And then you have other people in this world who root for the underdog, they give to the poor, they feel the need to be good, and they maybe have more of this kinder bonobo side to them. Our societies are constructed around the interface between those two, so we need both actually.

Bonobo lying down
Bonobos have demonstrated abstract qualities that were once thought uniquely human, says de Waal.
Photo credit: © BBC

The empathic ape

I've heard some great anecdotes about certain bonobos having behaved quite extraordinarily, like the bonobo that helped an injured bird that flew into its cage.

Yes, there was a bonobo at a zoo in England who found a little bird, a starling, that had hit the window of the bonobo's enclosure. The starling was stunned, and she picked it up. She took it in her hand, and she climbed to the highest point of her enclosure, the highest tree. She wrapped her feet across the tree so that she had her hands free, and she unfolded the bird like a little toy airplane, and she sent it out, which I think is amazing, because it's not something she would do to a bonobo; that would be stupid to do that. But for a bird, that seemed to be the appropriate help. The bird didn't survive the treatment, I think, but the intentions were very good. The bonobo put itself in the position of a totally different creature, an ability that we usually assume is uniquely human.

A lot of these things that we value in ourselves, such as human morality, have a connection with primate behavior.

And isn't there another story about bonobos and a moat?

Yes, there was a case at the San Diego Zoo, where they were filling up the water moat [in the bonobo enclosure]. The juveniles of the group were playing in the empty moat, and the caretakers had not noticed. When they went to the kitchen to turn on the water, all of a sudden in front of the window they saw Kakowet, the old male of the group, and he was waving and screaming at them to draw their attention. They looked at the moat and saw the juveniles and then got them out of there in time, before the moat filled up.

Now, that's very interesting, because Kakowet himself was not in trouble at all. It was purely that he perceived that water in the moat was not going to be good for these young bonobos. So that's a case of perspective-taking, and that is actually typical of bonobos, I think. Bonobos are particularly good at that kind of thing.

Baby bonobo
During the Allied bombardment of Mí¼nich, Germany in World War II, all the chimps in a nearby zoo survived, but all the bonobos died of heart failure. Pictured, a baby bonobo.
Photo credit: © BBC

We're not very good at appreciating other types of intelligence, such as perspective-taking and empathy, are we?

Yeah, when people talk about intelligence, they like to talk about things that they are very good at, such as language and tools. We're very technologically oriented, and so if chimpanzees are good with tools, we are amazed and we think that's absolutely wonderful. But I think in terms of social intelligence and sensuality and being in tune with the emotions of others, bonobos are far superior to many other animals.

What apes have taught us

We humans have also tended to put ourselves on a pedestal, separating ourselves from the animals. How have primate studies changed this?

Yes, in the West we have ignored our connection with nature to a large degree because we have no primates in Europe or the U.S. For 2,000 years or longer we have been building up this idea of ourselves as disconnected from the rest of nature, and that's why, for example, Darwin's theory was so shocking to the West, because it said there actually was a connection, and we didn't want to hear about that.

Now primate studies have filled that gap, and the reason we are obsessed by primates and want to know more about them, even people who hate the connection with primates, is because we know that we have been neglecting that connection, which we obviously have with nature. We have eyes and noses and livers and DNA, everything basically the same as any other mammal, and so that connection clearly exists.

How differently might we have seen ourselves if bonobos had been studied before chimps?

That's a fun thought experiment. Imagine that we didn't know the chimpanzee, that all we knew were those bonobos who have sex all the time and are peaceful and female-dominated and that people would say that this is our only close relative. I think we would have totally different theories about ourselves and our background. But, of course, it didn't happen that way.

bush meat
Civil war in the 1990s spelled disaster for wild bonobos, including a rise in killing them for food. Here, bush meat for sale in a Congolese market.
Photo credit: © BBC

If we see ourselves as violent apes, do we become violent? To what degree is that the case?

Well, there's a long tradition in the West of looking at our morality, our human civilization so to speak, as conquering nature. Nature is bad, our human nature is all selfish genes, everything is bad about us, and if we work very hard, we can overcome that. I've called it Calvinist biology, because it's based on this idea of original sin, and if we work hard enough we can become a little bit better—the perfectibility of humankind and all that.

I think if we humans cannot protect our closest relatives, then we're in really desperate shape.

I think if we study the primates, we notice that a lot of these things that we value in ourselves, such as human morality, have a connection with primate behavior. This completely changes the perspective, if you start thinking that actually we tap into our biological resources to become moral beings. That gives a completely different view of ourselves than this nasty selfish-gene type view that has been promoted for the last 25 years.

Frans de Wall
Protecting the great apes is not only our moral imperative, de Waal argues, but also preserves veritable "time machines" that can help us understand where we came from as a species.
Photo credit: © Catherine Marin

Saving the great apes

Do you find it ironic that the war in Congo in the 1990s—our violent chimpanzee side coming out—threatened these very peaceful apes?

Yeah, it's very sad. Bonobo studies started in the '70s and came to fruition in the '80s. Then in the '90s, all of a sudden, boom, they ended because of the warfare in the Congo. It was really bad for the bonobo and ironic that people with their warfare were preventing us from studying the hippies of the primate world.

What were your feelings when you first saw pictures of the war in Congo and the trade in bonobo meat?

For a long time I personally was in denial. I thought well, you know, they say that the bonobos are not there anymore, but there must be plenty, because some people had estimated 100,000 bonobos at one point, other people said it's maybe 25,000. But now we are down to maybe 10,000. So now I've become much more pessimistic, and all the graphs that I see nowadays of disappearing habitat, which is really the main threat for all animals, are also very pessimistic. By 2040 or 2050, we may not have much left anymore.

How important is it that bonobos survive?

I think if we humans cannot protect our closest relatives, if even those have to go, so to speak, then we're in really desperate shape. We should certainly also protect the forest elephant and all sorts of other animals, but the bonobo and the chimp are very special for our understanding of ourselves and where we come from. We can use them as sort of time machines, to go back in time and look under what kind of conditions we evolved and how the human mind was shaped by that original environment. The fact that the apes exist and that we can study them is extremely important and makes us reflect on ourselves and our human nature. In that sense alone, you need to protect the apes.

National corporate funding for NOVA is provided by Draper. Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers. Additional funding is provided by the NOVA Science Trust.