In my quest to read every book about primates written for the lay-person, I have come across a few that have as much to do with the person studying the animals as the animals themselves. It is very important as a reader of science to understand where the information is coming from – who the scientist is and why and how they came up with their theories and plans for research. Many times the research is directed by the animal’s behavior, which might occasionally surprise the scientist and cause them rethink their assumptions. This may lead to revolutions in how we all think of our own behavior and how we fit into the continuum of life on this planet.
I will start with the great Jane Goodall. As a young woman in the late 1950’s, she was selected by Louis Leakey to study wild chimps in the Gombe. Her inexperience and lack of expectations gave her a fresh view of what she was observing the chimps doing. She was the first person to observe that chimps were using tools. This caused a huge uproar in the scientific community. Many simply did not believe her at first. Her masterful books, In the Shadow of Man and Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe describe her life before and after Gombe, and also give a detailed account of the lives of the chimps – births, deaths, relationships and wars. Comparisons to human behavior are unavoidable. She consistently makes the reader aware of how she arrived at her assertions, and that she is telling the tale from her own viewpoint. She has written other books, one of which is next on my reading list: Jane Goodall : 50 Years at Gombe.
A Primate’s Memoir by Robert M. Sapolsky chronicles Sapolsky’s time researching baboons in the bush. It is a wry telling of what it is actually like to be a field biologist. It is not about what the behavior of baboons would be like if people were not around, the way it is portrayed in many documentaries, but what the interactions between baboons and people really are. It deals with the stress about keeping strict scientific methodology, how to work around locals and politicians, and how to sneak up on a baboon to shoot a tranquilizing dart gun at it. It’s also pretty funny.
Bonobo Handshake: a Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo by Vanessa Woods.
This book is about how Woods fell in love with her husband and how she fell in love with bonobos. Woods originally worked with chimps so she is able to detail many differences between them and bonobos. She is able to intertwine her personal story with that of the observations of bonobos she encounters and the political climate of the only country that bonobos are found, the Congo. Her description about the human condition in the Congo is not for the faint of heart. I won’t tell you what exactly a bonobo handshake actually is. You’ll have to find out by yourself!
P.S. Bonobos are a different species than chimps!
P.P.S. Apes are not monkeys!