Are you a chimpanzee or a bonobo?
January 16, 2011 45 Comments
This interesting article points out that the hominid branch of the evolutionary tree has split several times. The earliest side-shoot led to orangutans (bless their hearts!) and a slightly later one led to gorillas. A short time after this, a third split gave rise eventually to humans, while the final division (so far) separated the other bloodline into bonobos and chimpanzees. To put it another way, bonobos and chimps are more closely related to each other than either of them is to humans, but all three of us share an older common ancestor.
The article then goes on to ask what this common ancestor was like. Was it more Pan-like (chimp/bonobo) or more Homo-like (human)?
In answer to the question, the author points out that there are actually large differences in social behavior between chimps and bonobos, despite them having a recent common ancestor. Furthermore, she suggests, we humans show both types of behavior, so perhaps the common ancestor of all three species showed this variety too. Perhaps humans retained the more generalized or variable social structure of our common ancestor, while chimps and bonobos represent specializations.
But this intriguing speculation about the distant past rather glosses over something important about our modern selves, I think. Humans are not some kind of vague mush of chimp and bonobo features. Individual people and individual cultures have a marked tendency to gravitate towards one camp or the other, and they tend to show a good deal of antipathy towards the opposing camp. Collectively, we show characteristics of both species, but individually we tend to be either chimpanzee-like or bonobo-like, as I hope to explain.
Presumably chimpanzees live in an environment in which adopting only one particular mode of life has proved perfectly stable and useful, while bonobos occupy a different niche and went the other way. Meanwhile, the environment the human line found itself in might have fallen into one of two categories: 1) neither the chimp nor bonobo extremes were ideal, and some kind of less polarized social structure worked best, as it may have done for the common ancestor; 2) the environment kept changing, so our gene pool retained the capacity for both options because it paid to be able to adopt whichever mode best suited the times. At different periods, the proportions of “chimp” and “bonobo” phenotypes would have fluctuated, perhaps through epigenetic means.
But here’s the thing: these two lifestyles are mutually incompatible. You can’t have a dominance hierarchy that is flat; you can’t have a patriarchy that is also a matriarchy; you can’t have an alpha male if everyone is going around having sex all the time. But humans seem to have inherited a choice, and it seems to me that the fight for which choice is best is still very much being fought. What I’m wondering is whether this is the very fight that is today being fought at the ballot box and the altar…
Let’s compare Pan troglodyte and Pan paniscus a little to see what I mean. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll just quote from the article:
“If we start with modern chimps and bonobos, they manifest some striking behavioral differences. 1) Chimp societies are characterized by strong male dominance hierarchies, whereas bonobo societies have strong female dominance hierarchies. 2) Chimp males have been documented to engage in warfare with neighboring troops and kill troop members, whereas such behavior has not been observed in bonobos. 3) Chimp males are known to engage in infanticide, again a behavior unreported in bonobos. 4) Chimps engage in sex only when females are in estrus (“heat”), at which times males make great efforts to monopolize females and hence guarantee paternity. By contrast, bonobos engage in sex often (ten times per day has been reported) and throughout the estrus cycle, and seem quite disinterested in keeping track of paternity. 5) Homosexual sex has not been observed with chimps, whereas it occurs frequently between female and often between male bonobos.”
Mention of infanticide was what first caught my eye, because I’d just read this disturbing article about how men in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) not-infrequently waterboard their babies (yes, really) in order to instill in them a fear and respect for authority. Another sentence also caught my eye: “it’s unlikely that FLDS leaders such as her ex-husband (who is now a bishop) would follow [such new laws], much less extend legal rights to women or stop the practice of abandoning boys who are surplus in a community where the older, powerful men arrange the marriages and take multiple wives.”
Polygamy? Aggressive male dominance hierarchies? Alpha males? So what is the FLDS church, then, if not a bunch of chimpanzees? I don’t know about infanticide, specifically, only the waterboarding, but it’s not uncommon in other masculine monotheisms such as fundamentalist Islam.
The FLDS is admittedly a pretty freaky organization, but the chimpanzee qualities clearly extend to all the monotheistic religions to some degree, and the more fundamentalist they are, the more this is true. Aggressive in-group/out-group antipathy is fundamental to all, whether it be the ancient Tribes of Israel, modern Islamic or Christian antisemitism, or the Saved versus the Damned. An aggressive dominance hierarchy is a fundamental aspect of these religions too: The Judeo-Christian-Muslim god is unquestionably the alpha-male of all alpha-males, and Right-wing Christianity in the US is very much about doing what you’re told. Take this video, for instance – I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone actually argue for a dictatorship before, but the more you think about it, the more obvious it becomes that this rather extreme video is only saying out loud something that is implicit in fundamentalist monotheistic religions today.
What about homophobia? And what about the repressive puritanical attitude towards sex generally? Fundamentalist Christianity is very much a patriarchal dominance hierarchy with aggressive and sexually repressive features. It is exactly what an alien anthropologist would expect if we were closely related to chimpanzees.
And yet we’re also closely related to bonobos. These are the hippies of the primate world: laid back, “make love not war” creatures who opt for a flatter, or at least less aggressive, hierarchy. Their matriarchal societies seem to have more in common with our older, polytheistic or animistic religions, filled as these are with goddesses and a virtual supernatural soap-opera of social interactions. Bonobos, I might point out, are also the hominids with the most upright gait and sophisticated tool use, if not also the most language ability. If you were to meet one of our ancient Homo ancestors, he or she would probably look more like a bonobo than a chimpanzee. Bonobos are the hippie intellectuals of the forest. This doesn’t make them better than chimpanzees – each is best adapted to a certain environment, but when we humans try to describe our species, we tend to do so in a way that emphasizes our bonobo characteristics over our chimpanzee ones. Although, to be fair, perhaps that’s simply because it’s the bonobos amongst us that tend to write the history books!
Human hippie intellectuals tend to be political liberals. Is this mere coincidence? Perhaps not. Perhaps the political Left and Right are modern-day equivalents of the dichotomy that pushed chimpanzees and bonobos into separate niches?
The terms Left and Right originated in the French Revolution. On the right of the president sat the supporters of the king – those in favor of a very strong (male or honorary-male) dominance hierarchy. These were people who preferred the old feudal system, in which all men are not equal. They thought that social capital should be unevenly distributed, so that kings and dukes held most of the wealth. They were the ones “loyal to religion.” Today, they fear God, they fear the government and they would like others to fear them. These are the people who most support aggression as a means to solve problems (e.g. by preventing gun control, supporting high military spending and condoning wars). Their lack of empathic, egalitarian tendencies makes them oppose social care programs such as healthcare. They tend to be sexually repressive, homophobic and often somewhat misogynistic. They are concerned about in-group/out-group (e.g. the Birthers, who believe against all the evidence that Obama is not American). (Oh, and who is it that is most scared that we evolved from apes? Few people know much about bonobos but everyone knows about chimpanzees, so I’m not surprised the Far Right are uncomfortable about their past; they perhaps recognize themselves in it.)
If chimpanzees ever develop really complex social organizations, this is what they will be like. Remember Planet of the Apes?
Of course, such a simplistic characterization has its difficulties. For instance, an ardent Republican might accuse the Left of chimpanzee-like infanticide, given their respective stances on abortion. But perhaps even this has its explanation. The anti-abortion lobby is driven more by emotion than reason. Witness a billboard I saw in Florida recently that said “at 18 days after conception a baby’s heart is already beating”, which it then misleadingly illustrated with a picture of a six month-old foetus, not a tiny fish-like embryo as it should have been. What difference does it make that its heart is working (rather than, say, its kidneys)? It’s a meaningless observation designed to appeal to our basic instincts, and who is it that cares most about kin? Who is programmed to appeal to the alpha-male (i.e. God) to decide what’s right? Who has the least to gain from female choice? Hint: it’s not our inner bonobo.
Similarly it’s not simply a matter of Left and Right, because the extreme Left is just as totalitarian and “daddy knows best” as the extreme right. It’s more like the extreme right versus the center (which in the US is generally called the Left).
And why are leftists progressives and the Right conservative? Aside from a possibly greater tendency for bonobos to use tools I don’t know of anything in principle that would make one social system more progressive than the other. Presumably it’s an historical accident: we’ve just been through a couple of thousand years during which the chimpanzee model dominated, thanks in large part to Christianity and Islam. An earlier Age of the Bonobo may or may not have existed in the evolutionarily recent past (the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age, say), but from the perspective of our era it seems quite new, not really gathering momentum until the 1960’s. So we would expect it to represent the progressive stance, and to make the chimpanzees amongst us feel under threat and act more conservatively.
Either way, it seems possible to me that the bonobo and chimpanzee lifestyles might offer hints about the deep, primitive impetuses that drive us humans. Mere logic sure as hell doesn’t. It might explain why our political system has two quite persistent ideologies. It may have something to say about the emotional and instinctive factors that underly the current desperate attempts of the religious right to regain their hold, and why right-wing politics and fundamentalist Christianity go together at all (despite much of the message of the New Testament). It may tell us what really lies underneath the present startling and troubling attempts in US politics to reinstate an oligarchy, if not a theocracy. It may explain why some people are willing to lie and deceive in order to get what they want, because cognitive dissonance is less painful than suppressing our primitive urges (which we don’t consciously understand). It may even explain why it’s virtually impossible for liberals and conservatives to understand each other at the most fundamental level. Perhaps all of this is because some of us are chimpanzees and some of us are bonobos; perhaps we are born or raised with fundamentally different assumptions.
You may have guessed that I’m biased towards the Bonobo Way of life. Perhaps the Day of the Chimpanzee is now an anachronism – an inappropriate adaptation to our new niche. I hope so. Perhaps, with luck, it will soon be over.
<fade up Imagine, by John Lennon>
Postscript: Aha! I just found this, which looks really promising: Our Inner Ape, by Frans de Waal. It seems that somebody who actually knows what they’re talking about may have explored this topic already. I guess I could have saved myself an afternoon’s work! I’ll read it and report back.