Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Bonobos and Chimpanzees

Bonobos are apes that look similar to chimpanzees. (There are physical differences, but I'm not enough of a primate expert to be able to pick them out.) Their behavior, however, is something else. You have to read a lot about them to believe that they exist. They seem like something a sex-obsessed leftie would dream up, but they're quite real. Frans de Waal, an expert on Bonobo behavior, describes them as being "female-centered, egalitarian, ... and substitute sex for aggression." That is an understatement.

(There is a lot of information on the web about bonobos--much of it is from de Waal, but other stuff collaborates his findings. If you want to read a fun blog look at Bonobo Handshake, written by a researcher at the Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary in the Congo.)

Chimpanzees and bonobos are the two primates that seem most closely related to humans. More than 98% of their DNA is identical to ours. But the behaviors of bonobos and chimps couldn't be more different. Bonobos are a true matriarchal society--bonobo males stay near their mother throughout their life and in bonobo society, it's the mothers that are dominant. However, in chimpanzees, aggressive males rule.

"The most important fact, which has remained unchanged over the last three decades of bonobo research, is that there exist no confirmed reports of lethal aggression, neither from the field nor from captivity. For chimpanzees, in contrast, we have dozens of cases of adult males killing other males, of males killing infants, of females killing infants, and so on. This is in the wild. ... There is absolutely no dearth of such information on chimpanzees, which contrasts greatly with the zero incidence in bonobos. " (Frans de Waal)

De Waal cautions against 'fairy tale' writing about bonobos. There are plenty of conflicts between bonobos. But generally the animals deal with them by 'sexual conflict resolution', a true case of 'make love, not war'.

"... at a forested sanctuary at Kinshasa it was recently decided to merge two groups of bonobos that had lived separately, just so as to induce some activity. No one would ever dream of doing this with chimpanzees as the only possible outcome would be a blood bath. The bonobos produced an orgy instead." (from an article by Frans de Waal)

Bonobos are overall more co-operative and egalitarian than chimpanzees. In experiments reported in the journal Current Biology, bonobos were able to cooperate better to retrieve food than chimpanzees (although chimpanzees hunt cooperatively in the wild), particularly when the food wasn't easy to divide.

So here are our two closest primate 'relatives'--one that's dominated by aggressive males that engage in hunting and warfare, and one that's headed up by the females, that's cooperative and relatively egalitarian, and where sex, rather than violence, is used to deal with conflict. As de Waal says, "The chimpanzee resolves sexual issues with power, the bonobo resolves power issues with sex..." In my last post, I wrote about our need for physical affection and how lack of affection is correlated with violence. Here we can see that it's not just true for human beings.

Frans de Waal has written a book called Our Inner Ape pointing out how similar the behavior of chimps and bonobos is to human behavior and how our biology is connected with their biology. He talks about the chimpanzee and the bonobo within each of us, and seeing humans as a hybrid of the two.

I'm sure anyone who has read much of this blog has no doubt which of the two I'd like to see humans be more like. But de Waal has also written a book called Peacemaking Among Primates where he talks about reconciliation behaviors in many ape and monkey species, including chimps and bonobos. He points out that forgiveness is not just a human characteristic.

Before you let anyone convince you that we can't change war, hierarchy, and domination, beause patriarchy, imperialism, and militarism are in our genes, check out the bonobos. Some of our closest relatives are peaceful bi/poly* feminists.

(*Bisexual and polyamorous. I'll talk more about being bi and poly in a future blog.)

Quote of the day: "...the art of sexual reconciliation may well have reached its evolutionary peak in the bonobo. For these animals, sexual behavior is indistinguishable from social behavior. Given its peacemaking and appeasement functions, it is not surprising that sex among bonobos occurs in so many different partner combinations, including between juveniles and adults. The need for peaceful coexistence is obviously not restricted to adult heterosexual pairs." - Frans de Waal
Word (or phrase) of the day: Biomass
Hero(es) of the day: Viktor Frankl

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