Book Review: Almost Chimpanzee: Searching for What Makes Us Human, in Rainforests, Labs, Sanctuaries, and Zoos by Jon Cohen

Review by Bruce Bower

Chimpanzees tantalize and taunt scientists. Some researchers see these expressive-faced apes as dandy models of human ancestors; others cite the perils of viewing another species as “almost human.” In his new book, Cohen, a science writer, takes a largely entertaining journey into the fractious world of chimp studies. He falls short, though, of fulfilling the title’s promise of showing that people are “almost chimpanzee.”

Cohen is at his best in recounting colorful stories of chimp researchers and their findings on chimp biology, behavior and thinking. Consider the Soviet scientist who in 1927 almost started a program to breed human-chimp hybrids, or humanzees. Cohen also paints a compelling portrait of primatologist Tetsuro Matsuzawa, who shows his chops as a scientific chimp whisperer through his deft dealings with ape antics at his research facility.

One of the most memorable human characters in the book is researcher Geza Teleki. An ardent champion of chimp conservation, Teleki says he intuitively understands what chimps are doing — teasing one another, showing friendship and more — because they behave much like people. Cohen cites this as a sign of people’s “almost chimpanzee” pedigree.

What’s left unaddressed is whether a chimp could in turn understand human cultural activities, such as what’s going on at a church service or a yard sale. If chimps are not “almost human” in this sense, can humans be “almost chimpanzee”?

Times Books, 2010, 384 p., $27.50.