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Vanessa Woods on bonobos: an excerpt

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We have an extended interview with Duke researcher Vanessa Woods in today's Durham News. Woods and husband Brian Hare study bonobos, a rare primate cousin of humans and chimpanzees, in Congo, Africa, to help answer the question: What makes us human?

All most people know about bonobos, if they know anything at all, is that they have a lot of sex. Unlike chimps and humans, which murder and rape, bonobos defuse tension with sex, all kinds of sex. So I asked Woods about that in this excerpt from today's interview: 

Woods: "Yes yes, the make love, not war thing. But the thing is, people always ask me what it is that makes human intelligence. And that's what we started out to find: what makes human intelligence unique. But actually bonobos are the most intelligent because they've managed to live in a society that has virtually no violence.

"When I wake up in the morning I know someone might kill me. In Durham, at the medical center, a lady just got shot; there are like two dozen murders a year. Bad things happen to good people, and there is always a chance that one of my own species will kill me. When a chimpanzee wakes up in the morning, they also know there is a chance they might be tortured and killed by another chimpanzee.

"When a bonobo wakes up in the morning they don't have to think about that. And seriously I would give up everything - the computers, the cars, the living in a nice house - if I could wake up in the morning and know that me and my children, when I finally have them, will not have to live in that kind of world.

"That's why bonobos are important and that's why we need to study them., because we need to figure out what they're doing. ...We need to use our gigantic brains to find a mechanism just like they have, and we need to use it because there have been something like 26 days since World War II without war and right now there are seven conflicts going on that kill a thousand people a day all over the world. And bonobos, they just don't have that. I mean, so you tell me, who's smarter?"

Find out more about bonobos at friendsofbonobos.org. Woods will read from her new book, "Bonobo Handshake" at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Regulator Bookshop on Ninth Street.  

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About the blogger

Mark Schultz is the editor of The Chapel Hill News and The Durham News.