Where did Theory of Bastards come from?
In 1969, when my parents got divorced, the judge gave custody of my two siblings and me, not to my mother, but to my father. We were 4, 6 and 8 years old.
Back then, a father was never given custody, not unless the mother was considered truly incompetent --either mentally unstable or a drug addict. The reason the judge made this decision was because my mom had had an affair.
There was not an adult in my life who questioned the wisdom or logic of this decision. As children, we learned through the hesitations and tone of the conversations around us that our mom had done something unforgivable and aberrant, something no normal woman would ever do.
THEORY OF BASTARDS is partly an exploration of humanity’s overwhelming need to believe women have less sex and desire than men.
When did you get interested in bonobos?
I learned about them a long time ago, back in the 1990s. Bonobos look a lot like chimps, but are less muscular and more gentle. They are the great apes most similar to early humans in terms of their body and their brain size and capabilities.
I got really interested in bonobos though a few years ago. I read about an archaeologist (Nick Toth) trying to teach a bonobo at the Iowa Primate Learning Center, how to carve stone tools. The bonobo, Kanzi, had been raised with people speaking English to him. He could understand English about as well as a six-year-old child. He looked a bit like an older Miles Davis, with an expansive forehead and these knowing eyes.
The archeologist wanted to find out how our human ancestors learned to make stone tools. So every day in front of Kanzi, he would put a food treat in a box and tie it shut. Then he'd demonstrate step by step how to chip flakes off a rock to make a shard sharp enough to cut the rope and get the treat. He would hand Kanzi some stones so he could try to imitate his actions to get the treat.
Unfortunately the wrists of bonobos aren't as flexible as human wrists. They don't flick easily, so it's hard to chip flakes off of stone. Kanzi diligently worked at the task, trying to copy Nick’s actions, but after months of work he couldn’t perform the task. Nick, not understanding, kept demanding Kanzi try again.
One day, in frustration, Kanzi sat still for a long time, thinking, his eyes focused far away. Abruptly he got up to tug the edge of the carpet back, revealing the cement floor underneath. With a fast motion, he threw the rock down onto the cement, shattering it into tiny pieces. Then he tested each piece until he found a shard sharp enough to cut the rope and get the treat.
Instead of understanding this action as genius, the archeologist considered it cheating. I was fascinated by that. The comparison of a really smart action by a bonobo with a human not understanding.
What do you think is the difference between humans and other animals?
When I was young, humans were supposed to be the only species able to master a wide variety of tasks from using tools to language. Over the years, as research has revealed the abilities of other animals, these defining traits of humanity have been whittled down. Chimps use tools. Monkeys self medicate using plants. Dolphins have names for each other. Bonobos laugh. Elephants can create art. Over the years, we humans have learned we really aren't so unique.
THEORY OF BASTARDS is the story of a MacArthur genius studying bonobos and being studied in turn by the bonobos. It is the story of how a very smart person can occasionally perform very dumb actions and how language doesn’t ensure communication.
It is the story of how, without technology, all of us humans would have difficulty surviving.