Home > Man Law > Handshaking like a Bonobo: An Exclusive Interview with Vanessa Woods

Handshaking like a Bonobo: An Exclusive Interview with Vanessa Woods


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One of the primary beliefs behind The Unbreakable Man Laws is that while we are social creatures conditioned by our environment, we are fundamentally the result of generations of biological evolution.

Be sure to check out Vanessa's Latest Book "Bonobo Handshake"

Our social ideas may change from decade to decade (i.e. who has the right to vote, civil rights, etc.), yet our basic human nature remains the same.  We are exactly what Pete Waters described in his fantastic essay, simply Cro-Magnons with iPods.

It was this belief system  that led me to the idea of asking WHERE we get some of our most basic habits – why do we hug, kiss, fight and so on. Are these learned or are they passed down through our genetics? Who teaches a dog to urinate on fire hydrants or cats to claw at the end of the sofa? I finally asked myself, where do handshakes come from! Is this the result of Western European influence or is this written in our DNA? Do animals such as chimpanzee’s handshake?

A late night google search led me to the research of a rather interesting woman by the name of Vanessa Woods. Vanessa had been on a journey through the depths of Africa studying a type of primate known as the Bonobo. While having the same number of DNA in common with humans as the chimpanzee at 98.7%, the Bonobo Society exhibits a few unique differences to say the least. They practiced what Vanessa termed the Bonobo Handshake. I could go on further about what the Bonobo Handshake consist of, but seeing the handshake in action is a much better introduction than one I could ever give. Click below!

Needless to say I was hooked! But it wasn’t the Bonobo Handshake alone that drew my interest. It was the fact that the bonobos lived in an entirely peaceful society dominated by females!

Clearly we had something to learn from this species and Vanessa felt the same way. Be sure to check out her fascinating first hand account in her latest book, “Bonobo Handshake“, available at Amazon.com, her YouTube Channel, and for additional information on her research check out her blog located at http://www.bonobohandshake.com!

Without further ado, I present to you Vanessa Woods!

Ethan Bishop: What made the Bonobo’s so interesting to you?

Vanessa Woods: Bonobos are so closely related to us (98.7% of our DNA) that from a distance they look like ancient, hairy ancestors. But unlike humans, there is no war. Females are not beaten. Infants are not killed. All this is because of one simple reason – females stick together.
Ethan Bishop: How do the females maintain dominance? Are the females physically stronger than the males?

Vanessa Woods: Once I saw Tatango, an unusually aggressive bonobo male, run up to Mimi, the alpha female, and backhand her across the face. He hit her so hard he almost gave her whiplash. Within seconds, five females in the group ran to Mimi’s rescue. They chased Tatango around the night building until he fled into the forest. When he continued his aggressive outbursts, those five females beat him so badly, they nearly ripped off his testicles. After that, Tatango never caused another problem.

One male is stronger than any one female. But no male is stronger than many females.

Ethan Bishop: Does monogamy exist in the Bonobo society? How do you think this effects the female/male relationship?

Vanessa Woods: There is no monogamy with bonobos! I think it makes them get along quite well.

Vanessa Woods with Bonobos of the Congo...

Ethan Bishop: What do you feel that humans can learn from the Bonobo? Do the Bonobo’s truly exhibit an egalitarian society?

Vanessa Woods: Bonobos are famous for their sexual exploits. Sex is used to regulate tension in the group and the females form close friendships through g-g rubbing, which is when they rub their clitorises together. Some say they orgasm.

I’m not suggesting for a minute we do the same. It isn’t important how bonobos maintain peace in the group. The important factor is that they have peace.
Ethan Bishop: While the Bonobo live in a female dominated and peaceful society while the Chimpanzee lives in a male dominated society complete with war, sexual coercion and infanticide, How do you think the bonobo could have evolved so differently than the chimpanzee?

Vanessa Woods: The natural environment of chimps is kind of like an Easter egg hunt. Anyone who has been to one that doesn’t quite have enough eggs can attest to how quickly sweet-natured children become savage beasts. Like Easter eggs, chimpanzee food is limited and spread over a large area. Females have to forage alone, so they never form strong friendships, and males quickly realize that whoever controls the food holds the power.So now we come to bonobos. If chimpanzees live in an Easter egg patch, then bonobos live in a chocolate factory. Relative to chimpanzees, bonobo food is plentiful. And unlike chimpanzees, bonobos do not have to share their food with gorillas, who only live north of the Congo River while bonobos live to the south. Because there is so much to go around, bonobo females don’t have to compete for the sake of their children. That means females can become friends and stand up to the males who try to threaten them.

Ethan Bishop: Since the Bonobo is an endangered species with only an estimated 10,000-40,000 in existence,  What can we do to save the Bonobo?

Vanessa Woods: Firstly just talk about them. Only 25% of people even know that bonobos are a great ape. Then give to an organization like Friends of Bonobos (www.friendsofbonobos.org) that is doing so much to help bonobos in the wild.

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  1. Eric Simms
    May 24, 2010 at 11:57 am

    I’m glad to see the Unbreakable Man Laws has some deep, scientifically-based interviews.
    Still, I fail to see the tie-in between the information in this interview and how it pertains to human society. What, if anything, can we learn from the bonobos? Where’s the lesson for us that this interview is supposed to provide?

    • June 8, 2010 at 8:50 pm

      I’ll leave you to draw whatever conclusions you’d like from the interview. Perhaps both Vanessa and I failed to see what humans could learn from our closest relatives in the animal kingdom.

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