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My Family Album is a
wonderful book of black and white photographs of apes and monkeys by Franz de Waal,
the C.H. Candler Professor of Psychology at Emory University and Director of
the Living Links Center for the Advanced Study of Ape and Human Evolution at
the Yerkes Primate Center in Atlanta. He explains in his Introduction that he
has been taking photographs of primates for thirty years, and he selected these122
pictures from 50,000 in his collection. Each photograph is accompanied by
explanatory text in which de Waals explains some of the significance of the
image. It is important to his as a photographer to portray his subjects in a
dignified way, and he succeeds admirably. While readers will see how these
primates share many human qualities, the pictures do not try to artificially
anthropomorphize the animals or to neglect their differences from humans. They
include images of characteristic facial expressions, such as smiling, baring
teeth, confrontational stares, eye contact, funny faces, frowns, and the
"duck face" of the bonobo. There are also actions such as reaching
out in a begging gesture, standing up, holding on to infants, kissing, sexual
intercourse, grooming, fighting, comforting, playing, and demanding food. De Waals
emphasizes the ability of some primates to invent their own culture through the
learning and sharing of behavior, such as particular grooming rituals. In one
group of chimpanzees at the Yerkes Primate Center, for example, "two apes
grasp each other's hands and left both arms above their heads in an A-frame
arrangement. With both hands in the air, they groom each other's armpits with
their free hands." Another distinctive feature of My Family Album
is de Waal's focus on the bonobo, an ape for which he clearly has great
affection. They were only recognized as a separate species in 1929, and while
similar to the chimpanzee, they are distinguishable with their black ears, fine
hair, light-colored lips and less prominent eyebrow ridges. He explains that
bonobos are "so elegant compared to the other apes: the special hairstyle
with a part in the middle, slight build and narrow shoulders, long arms and
piano player hands." They are the primates most obviously similar to
humans in their cooperative social temperament. These beautiful photographs
make de Waal's point more powerfully than his text, and while educational, this
book is a delight to browse through. Highly recommended.
© 2003 Christian Perring. All
Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities
Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also
editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on
philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.
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