The New Chimpanzee: A Twenty-First-Century Portrait of Our Closest Kin, by Craig Stanford

Book of the week: Laura Kehoe welcomes a significant contribution to our understanding of primates’ behaviour in the wild

April 12, 2018
chimpanzee in Uganda
Source: IStock

Have you ever wondered how long alpha male chimps can hold on to power? Or whether chimp mums raise their daughters differently to their sons? I didn’t think so – but are you a little curious now that you think about it? If the answer is no, you can stop reading. Otherwise, may I present to you The New Chimpanzee by Craig Stanford? By summarising the early discoveries since field research began in the 1960s and then taking a more in-depth look at research spanning the past two decades, it provides a comprehensive view of wild chimpanzees as never before seen.

Stanford has been studying chimpanzees since collaborating with Jane Goodall in Tanzania 30 years ago and is now a professor of anthropology and biological sciences, and co-director of the Jane Goodall Research Center at the University of Southern California. With this wealth of experience, he expertly guides us through the dense forest of wild chimpanzee data that we have carefully cultivated since Goodall first shed light on this breathtakingly complex species.

Now that you trust your source, it turns out that the average alpha male in a community holds on to power for the length of a US presidential term – although the average does not tell us much, since one chimp community can differ quite substantially from the next. For example, Ntologi, a record-breaking alpha from Mahale, Tanzania, clocked in a 16-year reign of power.

And, yes, some chimp mothers do seem to raise their sons and daughters in distinct ways, even if this may not necessarily be a conscious decision. For example, mothers from Taï National Park in Ivory Coast spend more time raising sons than daughters – but only if they are high-ranking members of the community. This can result in higher survival rates for the male chimps, which may make sense when we consider that they stay with their communities for life while females generally emigrate at adolescence. Interestingly, the pattern did not hold for lower-ranking mothers or those in communities where their daughters are less likely to emigrate. This book is jam-packed with many such fascinating glimpses into the complex lives of wild chimps, from political tactics to cultural quirks.

Each chimpanzee is a distinct individual with his or her own preferences and personality traits. However, Stanford’s writing does not provide individual stories that immerse you in the complex and often harrowing social lives of wild chimpanzees, as Goodall’s early books do. In this sense, The New Chimpanzee uses scientific rather than emotive prose. However, for those who want to get their hands dirty in the details, chimp enthusiasts and budding primatologists alike, this book provides condensed synopses of every aspect of a wild chimpanzee’s life that scientists have thought to explore.

Stanford also takes care to present accurately discoveries that are potentially contentious. I learned the importance of this skill the hard way. A couple of years back, I worked with a team of researchers led by Hjalmar Kühl and Christophe Boesch at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. We discovered a new chimpanzee behaviour that is described in this book. We found four West African chimpanzee communities accumulating stones at the base of a select few trees. They achieved this by repeatedly flinging rocks at the tree trunk, by tapping them against the tree or by quietly placing them inside the tree hollow. This was a fascinating discovery – a new tool use that was not related to finding food and even pointed towards ritualised behaviour. Indeed, we still aren’t quite sure what this behaviour means. It is most likely a form of male display, long-distance communication or a way to landmark important spots in a community’s territory. However, I was not as careful as Stanford in describing this novel behaviour. One overly speculative remark in my account was quickly devoured by the press, leading to a media frenzy that peaked in absurd stories asking if chimpanzees believe in God.

While Stanford avoids over-sensationalising and is generally careful in his prose, I do take issue with one remark found in the final chapter that asks (among other things) whether research on chimpanzees helps to protect them.

This section outlines how the creation of protected areas has sometimes “involved expelling residents from lands they have occupied for generations without fair remuneration”. Stanford fails to mention the deep ethical issues inherent in moving local people from their land – land that has been theirs for generations. By criticising only the fact that “fair remuneration” was not always paid, he apparently assumes that local communities can be coerced to move with the correct amount of money. Perhaps worse, this line seems to hint that fair remuneration for moving locals might be an acceptable management action in a modern conservationist’s toolkit.

The reality is that conservation has a dark and shameful history of moving local people to meet the goals of privileged foreigners. This is a permanent stain on our field’s past – and in the past is where it needs to stay. Aside from the obvious ethical issues, many studies show that local communities do an impressive job of conserving their natural resources and living sustainably on their land. As Jane Goodall has always maintained, conservation must benefit and support local people. I can only hope Stanford’s remark was a careless oversight and nothing more.

Overall, we can agree that chimpanzees are an endlessly fascinating species that deserves a place to survive on this planet. However, our collective actions are slowly erasing the environments that chimps call home. Many primatologists fear that, in a few decades, there will be no chimpanzees left in the wild. This book adds to our understanding of our closest living kin and, through this understanding, maybe we will be compelled to do more to conserve them. Allowing chimpanzees to disappear from the wild would not only be an irreplaceable loss to the natural world but, as Stanford shows, would come at the cost of many future discoveries and impoverish our own cultural heritage. I stand with him in his hope that readers of the book “will appreciate chimpanzees for what they are – not underevolved humans or caricatures of ourselves but perhaps the most interesting of all the species of non-human animals with which we share our planet. The gift of the chimpanzee is the vista we are offered of ourselves. It is a gift at risk of disappearing as we destroy the chimpanzees’ natural world and drive them toward extinction.”

Laura Kehoe is a postdoctoral research fellow in conservation decision science at the University of Victoria, Canada and the founder of – a campaign in sub-Saharan Africa to plant trees on degraded land and protect remaining forests.

The New Chimpanzee: A Twenty-First-Century Portrait of Our Closest Kin
By Craig Stanford
Harvard University Press, 260pp, £25.95
ISBN 9780674977112
Published 30 March 2018 

The author

Craig Stanford, professor of biological sciences and anthropology at the University of Southern California, grew up in a small town near New York, where he recalls “collecting snakes and frogs, and dreaming of studying wild animals in Africa, when not attending Bruce Springsteen concerts”. He was an undergraduate at Drew University in New Jersey and went on to a master’s at Rutgers University and then a PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, which he believes was then “the best place in the world to study primate behaviour”.

Stanford’s doctorate was based on research in South Asia, where he carried out “the first long-term field study of the capped langur monkey”. While “suffering through heat and monsoons” and “living in a dilapidated hut on stilts in a rice paddy”, he decided to write to Jane Goodall and ask if he could study with her in Tanzania. When he got back to California months later, he was “shocked to find a letter from her inviting me to come work with her. That became my postdoctoral work during the early and mid 1990s.”

Although he admits that “field research is tedious, fraught with logistical difficulties, learning new languages, dealing with tropical diseases”, Stanford is convinced that “the privilege of stepping inside the lives of a wild animal like a chimpanzee is so profoundly exciting that it’s all well worth the trouble”.

It has also helped him “see myself, and others around me, as the primates that, of course, we all are, albeit with an overlay of culture and learning…I do tend to think that all human actions happen at both the obvious conscious level and also at an unseen level that is more influenced by our biology than we would like to admit. I saw it in my children when they were young, and I see it in the world around me today.”

Matthew Reisz

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