Primatologist Isabel Behncke on Play, Sexual Selection, and Lessons from Following Bonobos for 3,000 Kilometers in the Jungles of Congo (#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 range 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.

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#598: Primatologist Isabel Behncke on Play, Sexual Selection, and Lessons from Following Bonobos for 3,000 Kilometers in the Jungles of Congo

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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


  • [08:11] Baco and Jiro
  • [13:05] What is an applied evolutionary ethologist?
  • [15:43] Lorenz vs. Skinner
  • [18:23] The brilliance of consilience
  • [19:11] Humboldt vs. Darwin and the origins of evolutionary thinking
  • [29:42] Recent revolutionary thoughts about evolution
  • [36:16] Complexity and niche construction
  • [41:33] What’s more fun: a barrel of chimpanzees or a barrel of bonobos?
  • [49:19] Chimpanzee geography
  • [59:29] Magnificent bonobos
  • [1:02:11] Female mammal problems and solutions
  • [1:09:17] Sexual dimorphism
  • [1:12:18] Avoiding naturalistic fallacies
  • [1:13:52] How accurate is it to call the Congo the Heart of Darkness?
  • [1:18:24] Why are the Japanese so interested in animal behavior?
  • [1:21:23] Potato-washing monkeys
  • [1:23:28] Why do breakthroughs seem to come in clusters?
  • [1:28:29] Animals at play: the adaptive joker hypothesis
  • [1:38:59] The overlap between flow states and play
  • [1:41:39] What the natural world can teach humans about optimizing play
  • [1:43:43] The everlasting tango between energy and time
  • [1:47:19] Post-pandemic play
  • [1:50:09] How much do we understand about the way animals communicate?
  • [2:03:05] The drunken monkey hypothesis
  • [2:04:07] 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


The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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3 Replies to “Primatologist Isabel Behncke on Play, Sexual Selection, and Lessons from Following Bonobos for 3,000 Kilometers in the Jungles of Congo (#598)”

  1. In addition to the awesome biography by Andrea Wulf, which I can only highly recommend as Isabel Behncke already did in the podcast, I’d like to point you to another book about Alexander von Humboldt which is shorter and easier to read if you want to get a first idea about Humboldt: “Measuring the World” by Daniel Kehlmann – highly entertaining!

  2. If I have it right, she grew up in Chile, studied in England, but she seems to mostly have a French English accent. (When she speaks words like “Ecuador”, her native Spanish pronunciation is in effect.) Curious about that. Another stellar Tim interview!