Thursday, Apr. 21, 2011

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh's workday is a lot like yours. Even when she's busy, she gets a chance to swap stories and engage in give and take with her co-workers. The difference: her co-workers are bonobos.

For more than 35 years, first at Georgia State University and now at Iowa's Great Ape Trust, Sue, 64, has studied the mind of our primate kin, finding it to be rich and highly linguistic. The bonobos in her lab understand hundreds of pictograms, which they use to convey wishes, plans and opinions.

There is much to admire in Sue's work: the dedication it takes to work a lifetime with just a few apes; the way she has introduced the world to the little-known bonobo — a species I call the make love, not war ape. Mostly there is the courage it takes to stand up to the resistance she still encounters to the idea that humans may be less special than we think. Her work has punched holes in the wall separating us from them. But rather than diminishing us, it puts our remarkable gifts in a broader context.

De Waal is a professor of primate behavior at Emory University