Isabel Behncke: “We are not only monkeys, but also ants”

Tim FerrisShow bears the sign of being Apple’s #1 Business Podcast, and ranked first among more than 500,000 podcasts multiple times. That’s why, going through their microphones is not easy. The list of privileged includes, among others, Hugh Jackman, Dr. Jane Goodall and athletes LeBron James and Maria Sharapova. Only two Chileans appear on the list: the scientist from the fungi kingdom Giuliana Furci, and now the primatologist and member of the CTCI Council Isabel Behncke.

The scientist who grew up at the foot of the Andes mountain range, where she developed a love for nature and wildlife, as well as for culture and the arts, spoke with Qué Pasa about his participation in the program, and his long years of observing the great apesin which he traveled more than 3,000 km in the jungles of the Congo for his field research observing the social life of wild bonobo monkeys, which, together with chimpanzees, they are our closest living relatives.

The explorer-scientist, the first South American to follow great apes in the wild in Africa has documented how bonobos play freely in the wild and has extended this research to study how human apes play, and how play is at the root of creativity, social bonding, and healthy development, findings that are relevant to education, innovation, complex risk assessments, and freedom.

Recognized for her public communication and integration of knowledge, she currently also works as an advisor to the Chilean Government, working on long-term strategies in science, technology, innovation and knowledge (TCCI Council).

-What did it mean to be part of this podcast?

I loved talking to tim ferrisIt was much more relaxed and entertaining than I imagined. He is a great interviewer, because he is genuinely curious, he is very prepared, he investigates people very well. I was surprised by the direction the interview took, because he was being a genuine nerd, it was a very interesting experience.

Tim Ferries.

-During the podcast, you talked about your thesis about bonobos in the game, which you defined as “adaptive wildcard”. Where does this hypothesis come from?

The study I did was to understand What the bonobos they play, their social life and in particular the game and its function. So, it arose from the observations and the questions that were there, and deep down it is because wildcard, which in English is joker, but in English it has a double game, which is the buffoon, so it had to do first with what I observed that the game had a certain changing condition, it changed in form, in intensity, it was very malleable.

The second, it has a very large base of humor, and humor is born from the game, so it is referring to that, that in terms of observation, what is the game for, its function as behavior, wild card, it is like building a card extra that you can use it when the moment calls for it and when it changes shape, you don’t know what shape it’s going to take.

The game allows animals to have more flexible behaviors and it is the predecessor to creativity and innovation, therefore, it is useful, but you never know exactly what form it is going to take, how much it is going to be useful, that is the idea.

-Regarding your observation of bonobos in the field, as in the podcast, they always ask you why it is a very sexual species. Why do you think that definition always attracts attention?

Whenever they ask me about bonobos, they ask about their sex life and I always start by explaining two things.

One is the most macro reason, and it is because it is historically very interesting for humans in general to see characteristics in other animals that we have thought to be only our own. and that has to do with the use of technology, a certain type of intelligence and I think that sexual behaviors also fall into that category. Many people used to think that humans were the only species that had non-reproductive sex, but When you start to see evidence that bonobos also have non-reproductive sex, it’s very striking.

The second thing is that most of the observations that people make of bonobos are usually on animals in captivity and not in their natural environment, and in captivity they have much more sex than in the wild. The reason is because in captivity they are more stressed, it is like being locked up, their natural sociability is that they come together and separate in small groups in captivity. Sex is complex, but it has a lot to do with conflict and stress reduction mechanisms: when they are stressed there is more sex. So if people go to the zoo, it’s what they see of them, it’s what’s reported and it’s what’s in the news.

-Regarding your professional career and field observation, why do you choose bonobos?

For three reasons. The key is curiosity. I am very motivated by what ancient explorers used to say about when there is a map and there is an empty space on the map and one looks at it and says, oh that map is not drawn, there must be something there! bonobos there was that undrawn space, an outline that called for questions that interested me a lot.

The second thing is that studying their behavior in nature, which is obviously in the Congo, in the heart of Africa, involved a series of personal, physical challenges of all kinds that were not minor, that were important, and despite the difficulties it was very gratifying to learn to take risksto evaluate them.

If you are a Chilean woman, I believe that the challenges in nature always make you grow, even if you are crying and suffering many times.

Finally, the characteristics of the animal itself, they were and are incredibly interesting given things like they’re very peaceful (they’re not angels, I always say that, in our heads we like to do like chimpanzees are the bad guys and bonobos are the good guys), but it’s always more complex, and that’s an amazing lesson to learn by looking at a society and not imposing a theory and a reality on it, and the things we know about them, that they are peaceful but of course like all societies have conflicts, how they do not kill each other, this very interesting characteristic that females have that they are empowered and the males are magnificent and all that it is to be a bonobo that opens up so many questions for you.

A bonobo mother with her calf at a zoo. Photo: Reuters

– Will you return to the Congo to see the bonobos or do you have other plans?

I would like to go back, yesI would happily return, I don’t know when or how. Right now, it’s not going to be this year or the next, because well, a lot of things changed with the pandemic and I was in Chile and I’m working on various issues in the country.

Right now I don’t plan to go to a bonobo field but I have been doing land in Chile, because I am working in conservation, which has been a very old interest of mine. I have returned to that and I have also become very interested in the Andes mountain range and foothills and the interaction between biological diversity and culture in these areas, which for Chileans is fundamental.

-What is the invitation for people to listen to the chapter where you were invited to Tim Ferris Show?

The podcast has many other interesting guests, there is also another Chilean, Giuliana Furci, who belongs to the Fungi Foundation, and it is curious that both Chileans are from the area of ​​nature.

For the moment we live in, I would invite you to listen to him with an understanding of social complexity. For example, I don’t remember if it was that clear, but Tim was asking about the behavior and the fact that we are monkeys and of course, there we were talking about that we have our social brain that comes from our heritage of being primates. And we are very “barriers”: we form coalitions, we are manipulative and manipulable and we see it widely in politics and social networksbut the complexity we have added is that we are not only monkeys but we are also ants, in relation to the fact that we are large companies.

In Chile we are going to be 20 million, in the world 9 billion and we are similar in many ways to social insects. We have many fundamental interactions in our society that are never going to be in person. You make an online transaction, a payment, that’s relatively new in our history, so this kind of contradiction in modern society, where we have this small group mentality, but we also exist in gigantic societies, is what I mean when I say that we are apes and at the same time ants. It is a fundamental tension at the core of what it is to be human today, and one that will never go away. We must learn, understand and learn to live with that complexity.

Understanding it like this helps you understand why institutions are important and are part of the organism that orders and organizes the social being, of being social insects, because we’re such a big society that you can’t just deal with the same mechanisms that you were dealing with when you were a group of 200 people, keeping that in mind, this vital complexity, you can listen to the podcast with that in mind and draw conclusions.

-What is your message for the new generations that are interested in the field of science and observation in the field like what you or Jane Godall have done, for example?

Let them go to the land, that the land is in the backyard of each one, that is, the land is not only in the heart of Africa, that they leave now immediately (laughs), stop being inside. Also, in particular in Chile, we have a gigantic wealth in nature and they can start right now, for example, there is the Bird Watching Network in Chile, and there are other groups that study amphibians, birds, insects, mammals.

I would invite them to get in and to go with their local group to the field and start looking and to learn the names and to learn about the behavior and how the presence of certain animals and plants and fungi varies during the year, how they interact with each other. I think that training in the field is a training that fills you deeply because first of all you never finish learning, It is an inexhaustible source of curiosity and learning. Second, it has a spiritual and aesthetic reward, nature is terrible and it is beautiful, and third, very important, It’s a reality workout.

Nature and science do not care what one thinks, what one feels and that is very good in a very narcissistic time, it is very good to be in a system that is much bigger than you and where you have to be humble and learn from it and you cannot impose your theory or ideology on it, nature is, then This reality training is healthy, it is difficult at times, but it is available to everyone.

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