Bonobo Handshake Gets Thumbs-up as ORI Book
An engaging story on the curious habits of two sets of primates — the chimpanzee-like bonobos and humans — earned Vanessa Woods' Bonobo Handshake the thumbs-up as the 2011 Oswego Reading Initiative selection.
Bonobos are the closest living relative to humans - the species' DNAs are 98.7 percent similar - yet most casual observers likely could not tell bonobos from chimpanzees. But as Associate Provost Rameen Mohammadi of the ORI committee noted, those two species are very different.
"Chimpanzees are a male-dominated species and often use violence to solve their problems," Mohammadi said. "Bonobos live in a matriarchy and are more likely to use affection to resolve issues. As you think about these contrasts, we think about ourselves."
In experiments requiring cooperation to solve a problem, he explained, chimpanzees did poorly - if the reward was food, chimpanzees wanted to prove their superiority and take all the food for themselves. Bonobos are more likely to feed each other, looking at food as a community resource and thus performed better in experiments requiring teamwork, he said.
Woods' story of self-discovery chronicles traveling to the Congo to work with her then-fiance (now husband), which led to her discovering her interest in and ability to work with the endangered bonobos — she is now a research scientist at Duke University. Mohammadi said that narrative structure, and that Woods writes it so well and so frankly, is one of the book's appeals.
"But it still has many elements we look at in an ORI book, such as interdisciplinary topics and learning about other cultures," Mohammadi said. "You learn about these species, but you also learn about the Congo and how dictatorships have destroyed its natural resources."
In Smithsonian magazine, Sarah Zielinski describes the book as "one of the best accounts I've read of Congo's history and the effect of that violence on the people there." Named the "Good Morning America" top book for summer 2010 reading, Bonobo Handshake earned recommendations from publications ranging from Scientific American and New Scientist to Time, People and Elle magazines.
The college is working with Woods to give an author's talk and also speak to classes sometime in the fall, Mohammadi said. A summer study-abroad course to the Congo, led by Webe Kadima of the chemistry faculty, will connect some students with the homeland of the story as well.
In addition, members of the ORI Committee are planning other related programming, which could include film series, art and other speakers.
— Tim Nekritz M '05
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