Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Bonobo Politics

In a previous post, I commented briefly on Ian Parker's article on bonobo research in The New Yorker. The article was slanted against Frans de Waal, arguing that de Waal has been responsible for a naive view of bonobos as "hippie primates" based on his limited observations of bonobos in the San Diego zoo, but without having ever seen a bonobo in the wild. Now, de Waal has written a response, which I find persuasive.

Here's how I would summarize the points of agreement and disagreement in this debate. The fundamental problem is that the observational study of bonobos is not as extensive as that for chimpanzees. In the wild, bonobos are found only south of the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It's very hard to study them there because of the density and inaccessibility of their jungle habitat, and because of the political violence in the DRC. Most of the behavioral research has been done in zoos. In 2006, there were only a total of 84 bonobos in North America and 76 in Europe. The largest captive group is in the Milwaukee County Zoo, which has 21 individuals. By contrast, there are far more chimps in zoos around the world. Moreover, chimps have been studied in the wild for many decades at multiple sites.

Chimps have both male and female dominance hiearchies, but the alpha male dominates overall. Chimps are both competitive and cooperative. Their competition can be violent, even to the point of lethal violence. Until the 1970s, Jane Goodall was reporting that chimps were remarkably peaceful. But then she observed the chimps at Gombe dividing into two territorial groups that went to war, with the northern group (led by aggressive males) decimating the southern group. There have also been observations of lethal violence within chimp groups in the competition for alpha male status.

Bonobos also have both male and female dominance hierarchies, but it seems that the females dominate over the males. Although the adult bonobo males are bigger and stronger than the females, the females seem to be able to intimidate the males through a sexual bonding of females, who engage in elaborate bisexual acrobatics. The situation here is unclear because some primatologists speak of bonobos as showing "co-dominance," in which the alpha male and alpha female share dominance. Richard Wrangham, Takayoshi Kano, and Chris Boehm take this position. But de Waal and Amy Parish tend to stress female dominance.

This ambiguity in the dominance structure of bonobos is evident in the group at the Milwaukee Zoo, where I have often taken the students from my "Chimpazee Politics" class. Until recently, the top of the dominance hierarchy has been held by a male-female mated pair. (A good survey of this Milwaukee group can be found in a new book--Jo Sandin's Bonobos: Encounters in Empathy.) Careful observation by keepers at the zoo, supported with meticulous daily records of behavior, suggests that the female Maringa is the "matriarch" over the whole group, although her longtime mate Lody is the alpha male. At times, Lody seemed to be just enforcing the female dominance of "the power chicks." At other times, he seemed to be acting as equal to Maringa, as if they were the "royal couple."

Bonobos seem to use sexual pleasure--homosexual as well as heterosexual--as a way of pacifying conflict and releasing tension. Thus, sexuality is not just for reproduction but also for nonreproductive bonding. This pacifying effect of sexual coupling also seems to be used when bonobo groups meet in the wild. While chimps have been observed using lethal violence in group competition, bonobos have never been seen to do this. This might be because we haven't yet observed bonobos long enough. After all, Goodall had to wait for almost 15 years before she saw warfare among her chimps. But at least as of now, the evidence suggests that bonobos are better at pacifying conflict than are chimps.

Still, this does not mean that bonobos are totally peaceful. As de Waal says, the very fact that bonobos have to work hard at reconciliation shows that there is competition and conflict that needs to be controlled.

And if bonobos seem in some ways to be more egalitarian than chimps, this does not mean that hierarchy is completely absent among bonobos. There is a dominance structure among both females and males, and it's ultimately a matter either of female dominance over the males or co-dominance of alpha female and alpha male.

If human ancestry is traceable back to a common ancestor with bonobos and chimps, then one would expect that human beings show a political nature that is ambivalent in combining competition and cooperation, a propensity to dominance and a propensity to resist dominance. In his newest book Our Inner Ape, de Waal concludes that human beings are the "bipolar ape," combining chimp and bonobo traits, "being both more systematically brutal than chimps and more empathic than bonobos."

In any case, I see nothing here to support the Marxist notion that social engineering in a socialist society could make human beings so selflessly cooperative that they would have no interest in private property or social hierarchy. The failure of the Marxist regimes in the 20th century confirms the conclusion of primatologists like de Waal that Marxism is contrary to human nature.

We are neither selfless cooperators nor rational egoists. We are neither purely egalitarian animals nor purely despotic. We are a complex mixture of natural propensities that balance self-interest against cooperation and dominance against equality.

This goes against the utopian belief of the radical left in human perfectibility as supporting a revolutionary transformation of the human condition through social re-education. Rather, it supports the realistic belief of libertarian conservatism in human imperfectiblity as showing the need for regimes based on traditional morality, family life, private property, and limited government.

Other posts on bonobos can be found here and here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If chimps and bonobos are more closely related to each other than they are to us, and yet have completely different dominance hierarchies, this suggests that you should not base any beliefs about human hierarchies on the behaviour of either species.

So I would not worry too much about it.