Primatologist Isabel Behncke — What We Can Learn from Bonobos and Chimpanzees, Lessons from Sex and Play, Walking 3,000 Kilometers Through The Heart of Darkness, The Ape and The Sushi Master, and More (#598)

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“Play prepares you for the future.”

— Isabel Behncke

Isabel Behncke (@IsabelBehncke) is a field primatologist and applied evolutionary ethologist who studies social behavior in animals (including humans) to understand our urgent challenges with each other and the planet.

Isabel grew up at the foothills of the Andes mountains in Chile, where she developed a life-long love for nature and wildness as well as culture and the arts. An explorer-scientist, she is the first South American to follow great apes in the wild in Africa. She walked more than 3,000 km (~1864 miles) in the jungles of Congo for her field research observing the social lives of wild bonobo apes, who, together with chimpanzees, are our closest living relatives. Isabel documented how bonobos play freely in nature and has extended this research to study how human apes play — at Burning Man, other festivals, and in everyday life. Isabel has observed how play is at the root of creativity, social bonding, and healthy development, findings that have relevance in education, innovation, complex risk assessments, and freedom.

Isabel holds a BSc in Zoology and an MSc in Nature Conservation, both from University College London, an MPhil in Human Evolution from Cambridge University, and a PhD in Evolutionary Anthropology from Oxford University. She has won several distinctions for her public communication and knowledge integration, which ranges in formats from TED, WIRED, the UN, BBC, and Nat Geo, to rural schools in Patagonia and traveling buses of schoolchildren in Congo. She is a senior fellow of the Gruter Institute, a TED fellow, and currently advises the Chilean government, working on long-term strategies in science, technology, innovation, and knowledge for Chile’s President. She can be found in Chile and New York City.

Please enjoy!

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Podcast Addict, Pocket Casts, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, Amazon Music, or on your favorite podcast platform. You can watch the interview on YouTube here.

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#598: Primatologist Isabel Behncke — What We Can Learn from Bonobos and Chimpanzees, Lessons from Sex and Play, Walking 3,000 Kilometers Through The Heart of Darkness, The Ape and the Sushi Master, and More

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What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.


Want to hear an episode with another brilliant Chilean in search of what the natural world can teach us? Have a listen to my conversation with mycologist Giuliana Furci in which we discuss escaping political persecution, what makes Chilean mycology so unique, discovering new species in the wild, befriending Jane Goodall, the importance of letting things rot, and much more.

#525: Giuliana Furci on the Wonders of Mycology, Wisdom from Jane Goodall, Favorite Books, and the World’s Largest Fungarium


  • Connect with Isabel Behncke:

Twitter | Facebook | Instagram

  • Isabel Behncke: Evolution’s Gift of Play, from Bonobo Apes to Humans | TED 2011
  • Isabel Behncke: What Can Bonobos Teach Us About Play? | TED Radio Hour
  • Play in the Peter Pan Ape | Current Biology
  • Chimps and Bonobos | Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
  • Ethology | Wikipedia
  • Konrad Lorenz’s Imprinting Theory | Simply Psychology
  • B.F. Skinner’s Operant Conditioning | Simply Psychology
  • Consilience | Merriam-Webster
  • Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge by Edward Osborne Wilson | Amazon
  • Project Nim | Prime Video
  • Evolution | Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • King Lear by William Shakespeare | Amazon
  • Lunar Society of Birmingham | Wikipedia
  • Ex Omnia Conchis: Darwin and His Beloved Barnacles | Scientific American Blog Network
  • The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin | Amazon
  • Who Are the Brahmins? | ThoughtCo.
  • The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf | Amazon
  • The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin | Amazon
  • Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience | Letters of Note
  • Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience by Shaun Usher | Amazon
  • Santa Fe Institute
  • Natural Selection & Sexual Selection: An Illustrated Introduction | Cornell Lab of Ornithology
  • Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution by F. John Odling-Smee, Kevin N. Laland, and Marcus W. Feldman | Amazon
  • What is Niche Construction? | Kevin Laland and Lynn Chiu
  • The Complex Alternative: Complexity Scientists on the COVID-19 Pandemic | SFI Press
  • We Shape Our Tools, and Thereafter Our Tools Shape Us | Quote Investigator
  • History of the Congo River | LiveScience
  • Where Do Chimpanzees Live? | African Wildlife Foundation
  • Where Do Bonobos Live? | African Wildlife Foundation
  • Some Apes Jane Goodall Studied Fought a Years-Long War | AV Club
  • Jane | National Geographic Documentary Films
  • Lake Tanganyika | Google Maps
  • Where’s Waldo? by Martin Handford | Amazon
  • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad | Amazon
  • The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution by Richard Wrangham | Amazon
  • The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall by Mark W. Moffett | Amazon
  • Female Bonobos Shut Down Violent Males. Here’s What Humans Can Learn from Them. | Upworthy
  • How to Live Like a Rock Star (or Tango Star) in Buenos Aires… | Tim Ferriss
  • Why Some Mammals Kill Babies of Their Own Kind | Smithsonian Magazine
  • Don’t Sleep with Mean People | Baba Brinkman
  • Sexual Dimorphism | Wikipedia
  • “The Truth Is Rarely Pure and Never Simple.” -Oscar Wilde | GoodReads
  • Naturalistic Fallacy | Logically Fallacious
  • Congo-Brazzaville: Republic of the Congo | Nations Online Project
  • Kinshasa: Democratic Republic of the Congo | Nations Online Project
  • Oxford Handbook of Tropical Medicine | Amazon
  • Primate Research Institute (PRI) | Kyoto University
  • Wamba, Luo Reserve | Wikipedia
  • The Ape and the Sushi Master: Cultural Reflections of a Primatologist by Frans De Waal | Amazon
  • Shinto | Japan Guide
  • Sweet Potato Washing Revisited: 50th Anniversary of the Primates Article | SpringerLink
  • Morphogenetic Fields of Body and Mind | Quantum University
  • Attentional Bias | Verywell Mind
  • Scientific Heretic Rupert Sheldrake on Morphic Fields, Psychic Dogs and Other Mysteries | Scientific American Blog Network
  • Jiro Dreams of Sushi | Prime Video
  • Watch a Coyote and Badger Hunt Their Prey Together | Smithsonian
  • The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich by Tim Ferriss | Amazon
  • It’s the Economy, Stupid | Wikipedia
  • Next of Kin: My Conversations with Chimpanzees by Roger Fouts and Stephen Tukel Mills | Amazon
  • Kanzi: The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh | Amazon
  • 25 Amazing Ways Animals Communicate That You Never Knew About | Best Life
  • Austin Bats Watching Guide | Merlin Tuttle
  • AcroYoga International
  • Of Wolves and Men by Barry Lopez | Amazon
  • What Is Meant by Native Americans and Some Wolf Biologists Referring to a ‘Conversation of Death’ between Wolves and Wild Prey Animals? | Quora
  • How the Drunken Monkey Hypothesis Explains Our Taste for Liquor | The Atlantic


Note from the editor: Timestamps will be added shortly.

  • Baco and Jiro
  • What is an applied evolutionary ethologist?
  • Lorenz vs. Skinner
  • The brilliance of consilience
  • Humboldt vs. Darwin and the origins of evolutionary thinking
  • Recent revolutionary thoughts about evolution
  • Complexity and niche construction
  • What’s more fun: a barrel of chimpanzees or a barrel of bonobos?
  • Chimpanzee geography
  • Magnificent bonobos
  • Female mammal problems and solutions
  • Sexual dimorphism
  • Avoiding naturalistic fallacies
  • How accurate is it to call the Congo the Heart of Darkness?
  • Why are the Japanese so interested in animal behavior?
  • Potato-washing monkeys
  • Why do breakthroughs seem to come in clusters?
  • Animals at play: the adaptive joker hypothesis
  • The overlap between flow states and play
  • What the natural world can teach humans about optimizing play
  • The everlasting tango between energy and time
  • Post-pandemic play
  • How much do we understand about the way animals communicate?
  • The drunken monkey hypothesis
  • Parting thoughts


“Play prepares you for the future.”
— Isabel Behncke

“Time is an incredibly democratizing force, because you and an earthworm have 24 hours in the day. That’s a fixed budget, which means that there’s this constant interplay, tango or martial art, between your energy budget and your time budget. How you buy time or you use time is in interaction with your energy budget.”
— Isabel Behncke

“There’s something about really putting yourself in the feet, and the wings, and the mind of another animal as much as you can.”
— Isabel Behncke

“Evolution really is about how all life is related and how all life evolves. Everything has an origin and, like King Lear said, ‘Nothing comes from nothing.’”
— Isabel Behncke

“Being a female mammal is expensive.”
— Isabel Behncke


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