Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Bonobos--The Politically Correct Primate

Although bonobos resemble chimpanzees, bonobos are now considered a separate species. They have passed into popular culture as the "hippie chimps." They are sexual swingers who shift easily from heterosexual to homosexual activity. They resolve conflict through sexual pleasure rather than aggressive violence--make love not war! Although bonobo males are bigger and stronger than bonobo females, the females seem to be dominant over the males, which seemed to be enforced by females bound together by lesbian sex attacking any male who becomes too assertive. And while chimps have shown what looks like warfare between distinct territorial groups, bonobo groups seem to mix easily without warfare. So while bonobos would appear to be political animals in the sense that they must manueuver their way through a complex social community, bonobo politics would seem to be more peaceful, egalitarian, and matriarchal than is chimp politics.

But all of this is based on remarkably skimpy observational evidence. Wild chimpanzees are found only in the dense tropical jungle south of the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The few primatologists who have tried to study them in the wild have found them so hard to track that some observers have seen them for only a few hours after years of seeking them out. Most of the popular picture of bonobo behavior comes from Frans de Waal, who has seen bonobos in zoos, but who has never seen a bonobo in the wild.

I have regularly taught a course at Northern Illinois University on "Chimpanzee Politics," which includes some reading on bonobos. Each time I teach this course, I take my students on a field trip to the Milwaukee County Zoo, which has the largest group of bonobos in captivity (18-20 individuals). Each time that we go, I am struck by how we don't see the behavior that we have read about in de Waal's books (particularly, the 1997 book Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape). For example, we go there with the voyeur's expectation of seeing lots of sexy encounters, but we're usually disappointed. This experience as well as my reading of the primatology research comparing chimps and bonobos has made me skeptical of de Waal's story of bonobo life and the popular acceptance of this story as showing the potential for confirming Rousseau's image of the noble savage.

In the July 30th issue of The New Yorker, Ian Parker has an article on bonobo research. He surveys the debate among primatologists over de Waal's claim that bonobos are radically different from chimps. One can see here the moral and political implications of these debates. Feminists, gay activists, and those on the political Left would like to see bonobos as the closest living evolutionary relative of human beings, and they like de Waal's account of bonobo life as suggesting that human beings could potentially adopt the "bonobo way" of sexual equality and peaceful hedonism. Darwinian conservatives are suspicious of this as motivated by utopian longings.

As Parker indicates, the direct observations of bonobos in the wild are leading some primatologists to question de Waal's account. Bonobos are probably more violent than de Waal is willing to admit. They are not more bipedal than chimps. They are not more sexually active than chimps. And whether bonobos show female dominance--in contrast to the male dominance of chimps--is open to doubt. Even in de Waal's Bonobo book, there are some occasional suggestions that bonobo males are "slightly dominant" or maybe "co-dominant" with females (60, 74-81).

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