Spotting my bonobo-themed T-shirt, a woman recently approached to say that they were her favorite primates.
“Not humans?” I asked, but I knew better. Thanks to Frans de Waal and other primatological popularizers, bonoboism has become widespread. I’m part of the problem, having written a novel about it as a metaphor for anthropology. But people looking for a “hippie chimp” are lionizing the wrong species.
The attraction of bonobos is clear. They and chimpanzees are equally close to us genetically, yet their behaviors present a contrast we struggle with in our own society. According to the stereotype, chimps are patriarchal, murderous, and sexually abstemious, whereas bonobos are matriarchal, peaceable, and constantly engaged in sex. Violence is the coin of the realm among chimps, whereas it’s sex among bonobos.
Many humans feel called to take sides. Of course, this is hardly unique to Chimpanzee v. Bonobo. People often identify with other animals, looking to them for clues about human nature, metaphors for people’s behavior, and, occasionally, better ways of living. Yet it’s common to find popular articles on, say, coyotes that don’t speculate about humanity’s fundamental improvement.
Less so with bonobos. Researchers, journalists, bloggers, sex advocates, strangers seeing T-shirts … few can stop themselves from musing about the healing potential of bonobos’ example. De Waal writes, “I wish we would learn more from the bonobo, which shows so little violence.” Brian Hare, another primatologist, says, “Bonobos … don’t really have that darker side. So that’s where they could really help us.” The naturalist Carl Safina writes, “I like to think we have it in us to ape their gift.” And Amy Parish, yet another primatologist, specifies that bonobos “should give hope to the human feminist movement.”
Despite all that, there are plenty of reasons to doubt that bonobos (and/or chimps) form “our inner ape” and thus a model for happy relations.
So close, yet …
Our much-cited genomic similarity—more than 98 percent the same!—is less telling than it seems. The human lineage split from that of chimps and bonobos about six million years ago, but the ancestries of chimps and bonobos diverged only about one million years ago. So, metaphorically, we’re not caught between the two but off to the side.
Further, what often escapes notice is that, genomically, chimps and bonobos resemble each other even more than they do humans. Yet they famously behave quite differently from each other. And they exhibit some noteworthy anatomical and physiological contrasts as well, including their patterns of estrus—which humans don’t even have. Given our longer separation, humans inevitably have diverged much more from chimps and bonobos than these cousins have from each other. For example, de Waal himself points to “pair bonding” as a widespread human tendency not found among either of our close cousins.
How can genomic similarities be so misleading? One reason is that they don’t include epigenetic effects. That is, even though two species might have the same genes, these genes might be interpreted to different degrees, in different types of cells, and under different circumstances. Also, the small percentage of genes that differ might have outsized importance for the contrasts that fascinate us.
A bonoboist might counter that researchers since the 1960s have shown that most divergences between humans and other great apes are ones of degree and not of kind. We use tools; they use tools. We all possess some type of linguistic ability. And so on. Surely we can learn from their successes.
But the contrasts of degree between species can be gigantic. After all, no one’s going to get excited if a person learns to poke a stick into a hole for food. The hallmark difference between humans and any other animal is our much, much greater flexibility and creativity—our outsized ability to learn from others and to innovate.
Other apes don’t change so readily. Compared to humans, they’ve evolved intrinsic behavioral patterns that are less flexible and creative. Thus, in any given environment, chimps tend to be more aggressive, sexually abstemious, and male-dominated than bonobos. Each species is quite different from the other and from us, and there’s no reason to believe that we (or chimps) can successfully adopt bonobos’ way of relating just because we have such similar genomes.
For example, sexualizing relations seems to be a basic aspect of bonobos’ development, and their choices of partner are more situational those of most humans. A single adult bonobo has sexual interactions with juveniles, friends, rivals, same-sex partners, opposite-sex partners, and close genetic relatives. To state the obvious: a single human generally doesn’t. Add in some contrasts in bonobos’ anatomy and physiology, and it’s clear that they develop and experience sexual urges differently from humans. We can’t selectively copy them once we become consenting adults and get the same results.
I got your hippie ape right here
And why would we want to? Bonobos aren’t exactly egalitarian and constantly loving. They harass each other and fight violently—even to avoid sex. Plus their relationships are hierarchical, much like those of chimps. Matriarchy doesn’t mean equality, even among females. So it’s unlikely that bonobos hold some special recipe for improved, hippie-like human relations.
Happily, there is a hippie ape, one who has developed egalitarian societies. It’s humans! Indeed, that’s actually where the term ‘hippie’ comes from. So look no further.
For example, I’m a male human, and, without intending to emulate bonobos, I haven’t tried to kill a rival or a mate’s infant, I prefer to avoid bossing and being bossed, and I’ve enjoyed fine relations with a series of female supervisors and mentors. In the wild I’ve exhibited a readiness to needlessly cooperate and share, and I’ve remained playful into adulthood. I could go on, to include nurturing my offspring, wearing tie-dyed shirts, and saying “groovy.” This is not to brag, as even by this ultra-high, supra-bonobo standard many other humans are hippie apes, too.
Alas, it’s also clear that quite a few people aren’t. Humans have created extreme hierarchies, killed each other by the millions, and imposed patriarchal relations. As for sex: we certainly can find human groups who emphasize it and those who eliminate it. In short, thanks to our creativity and flexibility, we’re extremely variable in behavior—beyond chimps and bonobos combined.
This is great news. More than seven billion diverse people are available to learn from. Thousands of societies have been documented, with a mind-boggling array of beliefs and behaviors. After twenty-five years as an anthropologist, I still get surprised.
So our inner ape isn’t a chimp, bonobo, or combination of the two. If no group of people has figured out better relations, then we’re sunk.