In the family of life, humankind’s two closest living relatives are bonobos and chimpanzees, two apes with strikingly different approaches to living. Ninety-eight percent of our DNA is the same as theirs. These three intelligent cousins share a common ancestor that lived five to seven million years ago. In his book, Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape, primatologist Frans de Waal does a superb job of comparing the three cousins, and the photos of Frans Lanting are fantastic.
In Africa, chimps far outnumber bonobos, and inhabit a larger territory. The two never meet in the wild, because apes cannot swim, and the Zaire River keeps them apart. Both reside in dense tropical rainforests, and both sleep in the trees. They are similar in appearance, and it wasn’t until 1929 that scientists realized that bonobos and chimps were different species.
Bonobos are lucky to live in a dense and rugged rainforest that is difficult for humans to get to, explore, and destroy. Researchers can spend many days thrashing around in the foliage, completely unaware that a group of bonobos is silently looking down at them from the thick canopy above. Bonobos were not studied in the wild until the mid-1970s, and research was interrupted from 1994 to 2003, by a civil war that claimed three million lives. Chimps, on the other hand, had been known and studied for a long time.
During the twentieth century, industrial warfare brutally exterminated millions of humans. For some reason, it became trendy to perceive humans as inherently violent. Chimps were seen in a similar light, because of their resemblance to industrial humans. Once, when two chimp groups came into contact, researchers observed the brutal massacre of the weaker group.
De Waal offered this insight on male chimps: “Their cooperative, action-packed existence resembles that of the human males who, in modern society, team up with other males in corporations within which they compete while collectively fighting other corporations.”
Chimps and civilized humans typically live in groups dominated by alpha males who actively subdue their rivals. Females are second-class. When an alpha male chimp reaches retirement age, and is clobbered by a vigorous young upstart, the new alpha often kills the old fellow’s young offspring, so their mothers can promptly begin producing offspring with his genes. Because of this, females with young tend to go off and forage alone, avoiding contact with the bloody stud and his buddies.
Bonobos look a lot like chimps, but live very differently. Bonobo groups are matriarchal, and males are second-class. Females determine how food is shared, and they eat while the males wait. Chimps have sex only when a female is fertile. Bonobos have sex almost anytime, several times a day, with anyone interested, young or old, in every imaginable way.
The genitals of female bonobos become enormously swollen when they are receptive to sexual delights. They are receptive almost half of the time, whilst being fertile for just a few days. Non-reproductive sex is an excellent way to defuse conflicts, keep everyone relaxed, and have a pleasant day. Because everyone has sex with everyone, paternity is impossible to determine. Therefore, male bonobos do not kill infants, because any infant might be their offspring.
Hominids have taken a third path, the nuclear family. Long ago, with the arrival of the chilly glacial era, the rainforests we evolved in came close to disappearing. Our ancestors shifted outside the forest. The nuclear family was an adaptation for surviving on the open savannah. Hominid offspring benefitted when their mothers and fathers lived together and cooperated. Tightly knit groups of aggressive hominids could successfully kill game and fend off predators. The strongest, fiercest males were more likely to survive and reproduce, so natural selection favored these traits.
Promiscuity was discouraged, because males did not want to spend their lives raising a rival’s offspring. Thus, the nuclear family reduced the reproductive freedom of females, via moral constraints. Hominid societies have probably been male-dominated from the start. Male control further increased with the shift to sedentary living, and the accumulation of property. Males wanted their life savings to be inherited by their own offspring. This led to an obsession with virginity and chastity, and the prickly patriarchal mindset.
Civilized societies have developed patriarchal cultures. “With a few notable exceptions, such as spotted hyenas and the lemurs of Madagascar, male dominance is the standard mammalian pattern.” Chimps follow this pattern but, to the great delight of feminists, the discovery of female-dominant bonobo society has presented a less macho alternative. So, who are humans? De Waal says that humans are in the middle, between the two poles — both aggressive and empathetic.
Why are chimps and bonobos so different? Both have low birth rates, and nurse their young for four or five years. Bonobos live in a habitat with abundant food, and no serious competitors in their ecological niche, an ideal situation. Chimps live in leaner lands, and compete for food with gorillas and baboons. They feel the squeeze of crowding, and they reduce this pressure by infanticide, and by killing competitors. Infanticide is common in many species, including lions, prairie dogs, mice, chimps, and gorillas.
We live in an era of extinctions, and the numbers of chimps and bonobos are in sharp decline, as their human cousins relentlessly expand. Diamond miners, loggers, bush meat hunters, and war refugees continue pushing into their habitat.
De Waal appeared in a fascinating documentary, The Last Great Ape. It includes many scenes of bonobos living in the wild. We see them enjoying a pleasant life — eating fruit, having sex, climbing trees, playing, having sex, grooming each other, nursing. In one scene, viewers look down from a plane zooming over the jungle, and the narrator says, “This part of the forest is like a time capsule; bonobos may have existed here in much the same way for two million years.” Wow!
Viewers see animals that look like our ancestors, live like our ancestors, and still inhabit the region where our species originated. The bonobos have obviously remained far more stable over two million years than humans have, because they enjoy good luck and just enough intelligence to live well in their niche. When I contemplate the era of my 62-year life, and the skyrocketing destruction caused by humankind, it breaks my heart — and mindlessly killing the planet doesn’t even make us happy. Big brains do not guarantee long-term stability and ecological sustainability.
Patriarchal chimps have also succeeded in living for two million years, in the same region, in a stable manner. While they rudely offend our humanist and feminist sensibilities, they have evolved a way of living that is thousand times less destructive than that of the humanists and feminists in our insane society.
This raises an embarrassing question. Exactly how did we benefit from complex language, literacy, technology, domestication, agriculture, civilization, and industrialization?
Waal, Frans de, Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.
The Last Great Ape, WGBH, 2007 (the BBC version is titled Bonobo: Missing in Action, 2006). The transcript is here. Copyright holders periodically block YouTube access to this program, so it keeps changing names. Search for “bonobo” videos that are 51 minutes long.
The Baka Pygmies are our relatives who have lived in the African rainforest close to forever. In this video (2 min), they make an incredibly joyful noise. The aura they radiate is that of wild people with deep roots in their ancestral home. Sadly, their teeth indicate that their diet has been civilized.
This video (5 min) includes beautiful portraits of Baka Pygmies, along with their music. The faces of the children radiate a glowing sense of joy and contentment.