Biologists hold a gloomy view of human nature. A thin veneer of culturally learnt civility masks our true selfish and aggressive nature.
Indeed, the recent events in New Orleans in the aftermath of the hurricane would seem to confirm their deepest fear, that removing social constraints will unleash the depraved monster lurking at the core of our being.
In Our Inner Ape , Frans de Waal vehemently opposes this "veneer theory". He argues that both the light and dark shades of our nature are products of our biological inheritance. To support his claim, de Waal considers the behaviour of our closest evolutionary relatives, bonobos and common chimpanzees.
Initially, chimpanzees were assumed to be peaceful vegetarians. However, long-term field studies have gradually uncovered a darker side. Chimpanzees use sophisticated tactics in hunting monkeys for meat. Occasionally, cannibalism of infants has been observed. And over a shocking four-year period, the main chimpanzee group in Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania killed all the members of a smaller breakaway community, prompting primatologist Jane Goodall to use the term "warfare". It would seem that the blood-thirsty proclivities of humankind stretch back at least an estimated 7 million years to when we shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees.
Yet we also share a common ancestor with bonobos. Despite being called pygmy chimpanzees, bonobos are actually not much smaller than common chimps. They are more gracile, with longer hind limbs, slightly smaller heads and darker faces. Yet their contrasting behaviour offers the greatest surprise. Bonobos live in female-dominated societies. Though physically larger than the females, bonobo males are mummy's boys that rely on maternal support to maintain social status. Bonobos' motto is "make love not war". Sex in nearly every conceivable social combination and physical position is used to ease group tension and cement relations. Even in inter-group encounters, bonobos often exchange sexual favours and part on friendly terms. Yet which of these apes is the more appropriate model for our early ancestor? The answer is neither and both. We are equally genetically related to bonobos and common chimpanzees and both illustrate a range of behavioural possibilities in reconstructing our ancestors.
Although the above argument is scientifically correct, I cannot help feeling that we share more in common with the belligerent chimpanzee than the randy bonobo. Yet, even if this is true, all is not lost. Chimpanzees undoubtedly have a dark side, but as de Waal illustrates, they also possess many laudable social skills. A skilled alpha male maintains his power base by winning allies, often by acting as an impartial arbiter. Females show even more subtle conflict resolution skills. If two males have fought and are refusing to reconcile, high-ranking females have been seen to approach one of the males and groom him. She will then get up and start walking towards the second male. If the first male fails to respond, the female has been seen to return and tug his arm until he gets up and follows her. On approaching the second male, she will groom him while the first male grooms her. The female will then extricate herself, leaving the two males grooming each other.
De Waal also describes some extraordinary instances of apparent empathy in chimpanzees. He once observed a chimpanzee gently pick up a bird that had flown into a window. She carried it up to the top of a climbing frame.
Holding its wings out she launched it, but being too stunned to fly it fluttered to the ground. She continued to nurse and protect it until it recovered sufficiently to fly away.
In contrast, I once saw a chimpanzee catch a perfectly healthy sparrow in mid-flight and decapitate it. Just like humans, chimpanzees exhibit extremes in their behaviour. However, humans have taken the contrast of light and shade far beyond the realms of chimpanzees - so much so that de Waal dubs us the bipolar ape.
The human capacity for self-sacrifice stretches well beyond that of chimpanzees. Yet our capacity for violent vindictiveness also outstrips that of all other species. De Waal argues that both aspects are an integral part of our true nature. The angel and devil perched on our shoulders are equally a product of our biological inheritance and are equally susceptible to cultural modification.
De Waal constructs a convincing diagnosis of human nature, but what about the future? His prognosis for great apes is bleak. The current prediction is that by the year 2040 virtually every suitable ape habitat will be gone.
If we humans spell the eventual doom of our closest biological relatives, what about ourselves? De Waal advocates social policies derived from great ape and human hunter-gatherer societies that might promote social harmony.
Yet I cannot help thinking that in the end, due to our extreme bipolar nature, we will self-destruct and take a large proportion of life on Earth with us.
Our Inner Ape is an important book, written by one of the pre-eminent primatologists of our day. Although there is an over-reliance on anecdotes, this is a minor quibble. A very great service has been done by de Waal in pointing out the fallacious logic underlying veneer theory. This book offers a balanced and insightful analysis of a species that is all too often unbalanced and obtuse with regard to its own true nature.
Deborah Custance is lecturer in psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London.
28 biological sciences The Times HigherJapril 21J2006
Our Inner Ape: The Best and Worst of Human Nature
Author - Frans de Waal
Publisher - Granta
Pages - 2
Price - £17.99
ISBN - 1 86207 795 9