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Bonobos, Chimps and Humans

Bonobos look like graceful versions of chimpanzees. They are entirely tree dwelling, don’t make tools, or primitive war, or engage in hunting monkeys for meat as chimpanzees do. In other words, they aren’t like humans.

Frans B. M. de Waal chimps“Bonobos have more style,” says Frans B. M. de Waal in a 1995 article in Scientific American, “Bonobo Sex and Society” They were one of the last large mammals to be discovered by science, and were at first thought to be juvenile chimps. However, though they belong to the same genus (Pan), they’re a distinct species (paniscus).

Like chimpanzees and humans, bonobos show a capacity for self-awareness, being able to recognize themselves in mirrors. Unfortunately, self-awareness goes no further in many humans.

The human primate, in its war on the planet, is wiping out the bonobos habitat in Zaire and threatening the 10,000 that are left on earth. What can we learn from them before its too late, for them and us?

As de Waal states, “The bonobo species is best characterized as female-centered and egalitarian and as one that substitutes sex for aggression.”

With the exception of family members, “bonobos engage in sex in virtually every partner combination,” making them unlike chimps and more like humans. In dry scientific language, bonobos have “a partial separation between sex and reproduction,” which means they do it for other reasons than merely to make babies.

More importantly, from a feminist perspective, is the fact that despite the diminutive size of females as compared to males (called sexual dimorphism), bonobo females rule. Chimps exhibit a kind of brutal male domination in the wild, whereas bonobo society is structured along matriarchal lines.

This is a key difference, not only between bonobo and chimp societies, but also between bonobo and most human societies. Since presumably humans aren’t as hard-wired as chimps, we could conceivably follow the bonobo model and have much more peaceful, egalitarian societies.

There is a trait that trumps gender difference however. Bonobos have “a far more sensitive temperament.” For example, during the World War II bombing of Munich, the bonobos in the Hellabrunn Zoo all died of fright from the noise, whereas the chimpanzees were unaffected.

“Sex, it turns out, is the key to the social life of the bonobo,” states de Waal in the Scientific American article. Using sex in all forms to allay aggression, bonobos are the true primate example of “make love, not war.”

Chimps will often come together for a kiss and hug after a fight, but bonobos have sex before fights erupt, and before they share food. All kinds of sex: male initiating with female; female initiating with male; female ‘GG (genito-genitial) rubbing;’ male ‘penis fencing’ (no kidding); and other variations.

The most compelling fact about bonobo sex however is that they do it face to face. Chimps never do it that way, but bonobos do it face to face one out of three times in the wild.

This behavior accompanies increased female sexual receptivity. Both male and female bonobos exhibit a high degree of tumescence of the genitals. That is, bonobo males get boners very easily (at the mere sight of food for example, not a trait Homo sap would want to have at a dinner party), and females get pink swelling that covers a much longer period of estrus. The average time of copulation among bonobos is 13 seconds, which gives new definition to premature ejaculation.Frans B. M. de Waal chimps main

Bonobo society is not only female centered, but also female dominated. When a group of chimpanzees are presented with food, the typical male chimp will make a charging display, often with dragging and swinging branches for effect, claiming everything for himself. With bonobos however, as de Waal states, “the male might make as many charging displays as he wanted; the females were not intimidated and ignored the commotion.”

So does the bonobo lesson apply? Hardly. In the West, we now have the worst male traits being embraced by both men and women. The best example is women being lauded for becoming ‘warriors’ alongside men in America’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the Islamic world, the fear of men losing their domination is driving a lot of terrorist activity, since Muslim males have a dread of the desecration by Western culture of their pure images of womanhood, even as they enslave and violate them. 

Humans are like bonobos in the sense that “sex is separated from reproduction in our species because it serves to cement mutually profitable relationships between men and women.” But in the West nowadays, we’re also like bonobos in that “the burden of raising offspring rests entirely on the female’s shoulders.

“Nuclear families are probably incompatible with the diverse use of sex found in bonobos,” de Waal states in one of his few boners. Nuclear families were always an aberration, and are going the way of bonobos, leaving women to bear and raise children by themselves, even if biological fathers are in the home. That’s not good for anyone, especially children. There has to be another way.

In the end, we humans can neither return to some Rousseauian past, nor adopt models from primate cousins. We are where we are and have become what we have become. The way ahead is by facing and remaining with what we are.

That produces a primate of a different persuasion altogether, beyond trivial sexual and gender differences in humans.

Martin LeFevre

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