30 August 2011

What Primate Are You? The Sex, Violence & Politics of Chimps & Bonobos

Frans de Waal gives us fascinating look at how we humans resemble the apes he studies. In particular, he contrasts chimps, bonobos and humans in his book Our Inner Ape: A leading primatologist explains why we are who we are. As does probably anyone exposed to the differences between these two, I couldn't help but wonder if humans are not just influenced by primal primate influences but are influenced in different doses. It seems like some people are more like chimps and some more like bonobos.


Chimps are strong and violent, whereas bonobos are more gentle and, well, the euphemism often used is "affectionate." While chimps resolve issues of sex with power, bonobos resolve issues of power with sex. Just about any bonobo has sex with just about any other bonobo. (The females migrate out to other troops around puberty and while the males have a strong relationship with their mothers, this is about the only relationship in the troop that doesn't include sex. So, bonobos are free-loving but not incestuous.) Nerves are calmed and bonds made through sex and affection. By contrast, among the chimps, alpha males have access to the females and the rest of the males have access to females only through the alpha's approval or out of sight of the alpha. Among chimps, sex is a reward for power. 


Chimps dislike the other. When they encounter another chimp group, it is not unusual for one troop of males to systematically single out and kill the males in the other group one by one until all the males are dead, at which point they take possession of the females and territory. Bonobos get frightened when they encounter another group of bonobos, threatening and posturing, but actual injury is uncommon and death rare. Not long after contact, the bonobos are often engaged in acts of grooming and ... well, they are bonobos after all .... sex. 


Finally, chimps are led by an alpha male. This is not a particularly stable leadership because the alpha male can be challenged at any time. This position comes with lots of perks and special privileges so there is great incentive to be the alpha. And these chimps are unafraid to rule by violence.  Bonobos, by contrast, are led by females who do as much mediation with grooming and sex as they do with any violence.  The alpha female is usually one of the most senior females and her position is relatively secure since leadership  appears to depend on wisdom and experience rather than strength and cunning. 


de Waal makes many fascinating comparisons between us humans and these other primates, but it seems to me that political parties could be put on a chimp to bonobo spectrum. Offended at bare breasts in public (whether on beaches or because of breast feeding mothers) but not offended that someone would carry a concealed weapon? You're likely a chimp. Tolerant of immigrants and see them as potentially valuable members of the community rather than threats? You are likely a bonobo. Puzzled that graphic violence is rated R and graphic sex is rated X? You're likely a bonobo. Convinced that sexual mores are too loose and the imposition of more law and order and more severe punishment would make the community stronger? You're probably a chimp.


And if there is truth to this difference - if indeed the differences between us are as ingrained as the differences between chimps and bonobos - it suggests that we're unlikely to change who we are. In fact, to move towards harmony, it seems to me that we have only two options: either the chimps kill all the bonobos, eliminating all the "others"  or the bonobos mate with the chimps, eliminating all differences between chimps and bonobos generation by generation.  Let's just hope that the bonobos take more pleasure in mating with the chimps than the chimps do in killing the bonobos.

1 comment:

Thomas Bryner said...

Ah, but you're assuming that everyone on this planet is human and that we all descended from apes.

You earthlings are all alike...