The Little Rock Zoo

.The Little Rock Zoo needs to step up and care for the animals better! Please read the several artciles here with deaths, sickness and a bald chimp!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Are Bonobos More Civilized Than Chimpanzees?

Certainly humans are more civilized than chimpanzees. At times, sure, it doesn’t seem by much. Just prior to typing this I was listening to a blues station that played a song with these lyrics: You can have my husband but don’t mess with my man. Get it? Our kind can certainly be sexual opportunists. Other “brutish” human behaviors readily come to mind: warfare, xenophobia, school yard bullying, soccer riots, paid prostitution for sex, Valentine candies for sex, etc. Maybe it’s just me, but most television programming would make more sense if the actors were covered with fur. Oh yah, now I can see what’s really going on.

By definition human beings are the most civilized species. The online dictionary,, provides this on civilized:

Having a highly developed society and culture.

“Highly” is certainly the operative word here. Chimps do live in implicitly organized, social groups that pass on behavioral habits (customs) to their offspring. So the difference is one of degree. At least beyond the gadgets, goods and tools provided by high technology that the vast majority of us own and use but in no way deserve credit for developing.

Still, chimps can be quite brutish, indeed. Is the bonobo a “more civilized” cousin better suited to be first-in-line for comparison to our kind? Consider sexual behavior. (Sexual behavior and civility? Yes. Hang with me.) Female bonobos are in a sexual attractive state for 3/4 of their cycle (chimps – 1/2); they have more forward-facing openings to their vagina and, not surprisingly, engage in frequent face-to-face sexual intercourse. (11)

How does this pertain to being more civil, more community-friendly? It is believed that frequent, face-to-face sexual activity can help establish and maintain a pair bond. And pair bonds (monogamous behavior) leads to family-friendly, less strife-filled communities.

In a sense, political conservatives have it right. Strong pair bonds can play a role in a more tranquil society. Of course, their insistence on procreation-only sex is ludicrous. In humans and in bonobos, they idea is frequent sex for the sake of social relations.

But here’s the thing. Bonobos don’t form long-lasting male-female pair bonds. In a sense, they extend their sexuality further into their social group. At times they seem to use it as the equivalent of the human handshake. And, brace yourself, female-to-female clitoral rubbing is fairly common.

So while both the bonobo and human appear to use sexuality as a sort of social glue (lubricant?), with humans the sphere of seeming recreational sexual activity is at least overtly constrained to the pair bond (or pre-pair bond).

Relevantly, primatologist Frans de Waal includes discussion of bonobo sexuality in his book, Peacemaking Among Primates. If humans engage in “make-up” sex, bonobos are masters at it.

The “free love” aspect of bonobo behavior does have this additional consequence (and a very socially significant consequence it is): when females are freely polyamorous, it removes male sexual possessiveness from dominance disputes.(12) And, judging by bonobo male behavior, subtracting the resource of wombs (as the only way to bring progeny to fruition) from the equation of hierarchical motivations substantial deflates its importance. Without sex as a motive for males to squabble about, battle, posture, etc., what other reasons are there? Food maybe, better nesting sites, I guess. It seems that males just don’t get all that riled up about climbing a ladder of dominance if all it leads to is a better night’s rest.

As a direct result of sexual access to females being largely removed from group dynamics, the bonobo has been called the “egalitarian ape.” Funny, subtract sexual possessiveness and jealousy, etc., from a social group and it’s amazing how well everyone can get along. Of course, easier said than done, especially for some species more than others.

Female human beings, of course, do not display the same degree of polyamorous behavior. Does their potential merely lie latent? What about human males — are they sexually possessive? The answer to this question will help us determine whether or not the bonobo is a closer behavioral cousin to our kind than the chimpanzee.

Beyond the male bonobo being individually less despotic in behavior — attempting to rule by brute force — than the male chimp, “adult male-male bonds are not as pronounced in any known bonobo population as they are among chimpanzees.” (13)

As a number primatologists have hinted, the subtraction of male sexual possessiveness (of female wombs as a resource that can be successfully hoarded and guarded) can explain a lot of the bonobo’s apparent pacifism. Other resources instead become the focus of bonobo political behavior (the investment-in and protection-of social relations for ultimately pragmatic reasons).

A number of writers have pointed to the bonobo as a more “feminist” primate. And, indeed,

“As a result of such maternal interventions, the highest-ranking males in a bonobo community tend to be the sons of the highest-ranking females. Male alliances are little developed, which allows females to exert considerable influence.” (14)

But this has nothing to do with any inherent value or worth of females, or males for that matter. Ultimate male/female status or worth is a narrow-minded human concern. Are males better? Better for what? Are females better? Better for what?

As for a maternalistic social organization (hierarchy), while this is a fascinating difference from what you find in chimpanzee social groups, the structure nonetheless serves a purpose. The important question is: what purpose is that? Behind supposedly more or less virtuous behavior and social relations we will find important, pragmatic consequences. At least historically so.

Consider this test case: bonobos seem to have more “relaxed” inter-group interactions.(15) Is this because the bonobos are a more highly evolved creature? What’s the advantage, in terms of natural selection, for that? Is it possible that the more placid inter-group interactions are primarily the result of such things as less sexual conflict between groups and other things, such as abundance of food, hence a reduced incentive to view others as a threat to valued resources?

So sure, there is a notable “lack of male-female aggression and inter-community violence” in bonobos, relative to chimps. (16) Still, as Christopher Boehm, author of Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior, has argued, it is possible that the Swiss-Army blade of potential bonobo male hierarchical strivings is not wholly absent, but successfully “counterbalanced by coalitions of females.” (17)

Once again, we should wonder what political purpose these female coalitions serve. For evolution cares not a whit about virtue in a vacuum.

As it turns out, bonobos may not be so fully peace-love-and-equality primates after all. In his book on human evolution, Tree of Origin: What Primate Behavior Can Tell Us About Human Social Evolution, Frans de Wall makes these somewhat contrarian points about the bonobo:

1. Female bonobos do seem to establish hierarchies, though these are more loosely guarded and appear to be based on age and residency.

2. Males do compete for rank, sometimes fiercely at times. Their overall status, however, seems strongly influenced by the status of the individual’s mother.

3. In a turn of the tables, females will hoard and guard prized foods — a valued resource. They will freely fend off males and thus “dominate” them. (18)

My guess is that if you were to place chimpanzees in physical and social environments similar to the bonobo . . . they would become more bonobo-like in behavior. Over time.

What is the nature of human beings in our own time? Good question.

These words of another blues song just caught my attention: “I’m going to kill my old lady, I caught her messing with another man.”

Sexual possessiveness anyone?

Chimpanzee, bonobo: does one primate represent the worst of human behavior, the other the better? Maybe. At least at first glance. We’ll be taking a second glance at the bonobo next.

(11) de Waal, F. Peacemaking Among Primates, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1989
(12) Boehm, C., Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior, Harvard University
Press, Cambridge, MA, 1999.
(13) King, B., The Dynamic Dance: Nonvocal Communication in African Great Apes, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2004, p. 33
(14) de Waal, F. B. M., (ed.), Tree of Origin: What Primate Behavior Can Tell Us About Human Social Evolution, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2001, p. 58
(15) Wrangham, R. & Pilbeam, D., “African Apes As Time Machines,” in Galdikas, B. M. F., Briggs, N. E., Sheeran, L.K., Shapiro, G. L. & Goodall, J. (Eds.), All Apes Great and Small, Volume I: African Apes, Kluwer Academic / Plenum, New York, 2001, p.13
(16) King, B., 2004, p. 31
(17) Boehm, C., 1999, p. 30
(18) de Waal, F. B. M., 2001, “Apes from Venus: Bonobos and Human Social Evolution,” page 56.


No comments:

Post a Comment