Book review: ‘Different’, by Frans de Waal

When De Waal asserts that male apes and men are both judged by the width of their shoulders, he doesn’t even offer a footnote. After observing that male chimpanzees exaggerate their size by making their hair stand on end, he turns to men’s fashion. “We also pay special attention to the shoulder width of the men, which is why the suits have shoulder pads,” says de Waal.

Professor de Waal, I have Joan Crawford on line 1 waiting to speak to you. Joan Collins is on line two.

Sometimes de Waal’s evidence of a connection between humans and other primates looks more like free association. When discussing the violence inflicted by males on females, he asserts that unrelated females can protect each other, just as female bonobos do. “The #MeToo movement comes to mind. The same goes for the Green Sari movement,” he wrote.

“Different” would have benefited from less free association and more sustained argumentation. I wasn’t sure what to make of the fact that humans resemble chimpanzees in some ways and bonobos in others. After all, they are both equally related to us, belonging to a lineage that split from ours around six million years ago.

As de Waal ventures further down the primate tree, things get more confusing. In a chapter on parental care, he describes how cotton tamarin fathers go to great lengths to raise their young. (They can burn 10% of their body weight dragging their children.) As we wait to find out what cotton-tamarin fathers can tell us about human fathers, de Waal loses interest. “These apes are quite distant from us, however, which makes them less relevant to human evolution,” he says, turning to gibbons. Will the pinched tamarinds be halfway through?

There’s a deeper problem with writing about cottony-crested tamarins like this: they’re different from their own close relatives. The ancestors of cottony-crested tamarins began as a species whose fathers offered little care. And then a mysterious combination of evolutionary factors pushed the ancestors of the cottony-crested tamarins down a particular path.

We humans are also special. We may not be as special as we’d like to think, but we’ve gone through big changes since our lineage split from chimpanzees and bonobos. Our ancestors started walking upright, lost much of their hair, developed big brains, and started speaking a language of their own. It’s hard to tell from “different” how much our genera were shaped by history before and after our separation from our primate brethren.

Angela C. Hale