Who’s ‘Our Inner Ape’? Or, I got your hippie chimp right here, and it’s not a bonobo

Here’s a YouTube rendition of the slideshow I presented at Nerd Nite DC in 2016. The script follows the video. A shorter version is here.

A woman recently came up to tell me that bonobos were her favorite primates. “Not humans?” I asked, but I knew better. Thanks to primatological popularizers, bonoboism has become widespread. But people looking for a “hippie chimp” are lionizing the wrong species.

In this video, I’ll discuss whether our close cousins chimpanzees and bonobos should serve as models for us (you know, humans). I’ll especially examine the case for emulating those lusty bonobos.

So let’s get some basics out of the way. These two great apes attract a lot of attention because they’re our closest genetic relatives, with each species sharing 98.7 percent of its genome with humans. Both species, tragically, are endangered. And they live on opposite sides of the Congo River, in Africa. Despite this proximity, they’re very different from each other. Indeed, 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. Given this depiction, you might see why bonobos are often described as “hippie chimps.” These, by the way, are gross stereotypes, but, regardless of their accuracy, it’s common even for primatologists to set up chimps and bonobos as polar opposites – and then to draw parallels to humans.

In fact, primatologists and others commonly assert that each human incorporates – and can choose between – a chimp self and a bonobo self. Frans De Waal, the premier primatological popularizer, wrote an entire book organized around this trope. In Our Inner Ape, he states: “If the chimpanzee is our demonic face, the bonobo must be our angelic one.” But he’s far from alone in making such inane comments. For example, Frances White, a biological anthropologist, states: “We’re equally related to chimps and bonobos, and we have their entire range of behavioral variation available to us. We can be as aggressive as the chimpanzee, or as female-allied as the bonobo.”

And the experts typically favor emulating bonobos. 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.”

But how serious could these conclusions be, if these folks haven’t dedicated their lives with religious fervor to popularizing this potential panacea ​among the populace, and instead fill most of their days doing their day jobs – that is, regular research? Where, in short, is the Bonobo Movement?

Well, some people take the idea more seriously. For example, Dr. Susan Block – not a primatologist but an enthusiastic promoter of what she considers to be “The Bonobo Way.” There must be others, although perhaps less picturesque.

But even that’s not a complete commitment. I wrote a novel about people who take the idea even further: a full-fledged, utopian Bonobo Movement. For my characters, trying to emulate bonobos doesn’t work out as envisioned, and the remainder of this video helps to explain why.​ I’ll give four reasons:

  • First, we’re not actually between chimps and bonobos.
  • Second, bonobos grow up to do what they do in a way that we can’t.
  • Third, upon close inspection, you probably don’t want to emulate bonobos, who definitely don’t deserve to be called “hippies.”
  • And, finally, some other apes do deserve to be called hippies.

So let’s look at the much-repeated idea that humans are somehow “between” chimps and bonobos. (This slide’s title is a bad joke, of course: they’re apes, not monkeys.) Anyway, our much-cited genomic similarity—98.7 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 we’re not caught “between” them, despite de Waal’s rhetorical device. We’re off to the side.

Further, what often escapes notice is that, genomically, chimps and bonobos resemble each other even more than they do humans. They’re 99.6 percent the same! Yet they famously behave so differently from each other that people describe them as opposites. 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” (or forming couples) as a widespread human tendency not found among either of our close cousins.

Indeed, our genome has more than three times as many differences from those of chimps and bonobos than theirs do from each other. So, if any species could live like bonobos and find happiness, you’d think it’d be chimps. Good luck with that.

Chimps and bonobos don’t simply behave differently. Their bodies differ, too. These anatomical and physiological contrasts include skin color at birth, robustness, degree of sexual dimorphism, and perineal swellings: those pink blobs on females that signal sexual availability, or estrus.

Female chimps have a quite limited period of estrus, whereas female bonobos are swollen and available most of the time. That’s a significant difference, despite such genetic similarity. But female humans (women) don’t go into estrus at all, and, research shows, the only reliable way to gauge their availability is by talking with them. So, again, humans aren’t between chimps and bonobos, even regarding something as basic as reproduction. In fact, in this case, as with pair bonding, we’re categorically different.

How can genomic similarities be so misleading? The most obvious answer is that the small percentage of genes that differ might have outsized importance for the contrasts that fascinate us. On the other hand, their kidneys might be basically identical.

Another, less obvious reason is that these counts of identical genes don’t include epigenetic effects – that is, the ways in which genes are “switched on or off.” So, 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. For example, consider the effect of all that sex on bonobos’ development. We know that the hormonal environment in the womb affects the development of human fetuses. A stressed out mother, filled with cortisol, has a different child than she would if she were happy and relaxed, awash in oxytocin. So all that sexual interaction by bonobo mothers must affect their fetus’ prenatal development, compared to chimps. And, after being born, young bonobos continue to develop in a hormonal environment affected by lots of caressing and consensual cooperation, too—unlike chimps.

Ultimately, we don’t know what the effects of the genomic versus epigenetic and other environmental influences are. To answer such questions, researchers have cruelly taken young chimps and bonobos and raised them among humans. But this ignores the vital influence of the prenatal environment. To truly test how close chimps and bonobos could be to us, we need to implant zygotes of each in a set of willing human mothers (yes, they have to be human) and see how the resulting humanzees and hunobos would develop. This might be unethical.

In any case, whether for genomic, epigenetic, or other developmental reasons, chimps and bonobos have intrinsic behavioral patterns that are quite different from ours – and that are less flexible. 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 enormous. 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 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.

But let’s consider what copying bonobos might involve in more detail: focusing on their much-lauded lifelong pansexuality. 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 commonly has sexual interactions with juveniles (as depicted here), 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.

Let’s translate this into human terms, leaving aside the pedophilia and incest. One reason bonobos engage in sex is to defuse tension between individuals. Does that sound attractive, perhaps? Do you feel like rubbing genitalia with coworkers after arguing with them, maybe over who’s hogging the photocopier? Another reason bonobos initiate sex is to get access to desired food. Maybe you want to share your friend’s french fries; that’s when a bonobo would get funky. Are you ready for that? And bonobo wannabes should be careful what they wish for: bonobo sex lasts, on average, a whopping 14 seconds, and it usually doesn’t end in ejaculation. Ahhh!

The big point, again, is that bonobos (and chimps) inevitably develop sexually quite differently from humans. And it’s not a choice. So we can’t learn to be like them, because we’d have to choose something that comes automatically to them. It would be like factory owners learning labor-management techniques from ants. If we want to understand the effects of frequent consensual sex among physically and emotionally mature humans, we can find people who do that – remember Dr. Susan Block, up above? That, however, is different from understanding bonobo-like relations.

But let’s go even further. Despite all the sex, I contend that bonobos don’t even deserve the honor of being called hippie chimps.

  • First, bonobos aren’t constantly loving. They harass each other and fight violently—even to avoid sex. They just don’t kill each other, probably.
  • Moreover, they’re not egalitarian, even among females. Being matriarchal only means that the highest ranking bonobo is a female, but other females rank lower and get fewer resources. And males likewise. Thus, bonobos are hierarchical, and the lower-ranked ones trade sexual favors to get goodies from the more powerful. Is this something humans should emulate? Don’t we generally lament this when it happens?
  • By the way, googling “bonobo maternal cannibalism” yields some interesting results, too.

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 I haven’t tried to kill a rival or a mate’s infant or even to initiate a fistfight. Researchers could study me! And the literally billions of people who can say the same. Moreover, 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 also 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. We do things that aren’t between chimps and bonobos, or like them, but are simply different.

So: sorry, Frans, our ‘inner ape’ isn’t a chimp, a bonobo, or a combination of the two. It’s simply human.

And 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, if no group of people has figured out better relations, then we’re sunk; we should give up; it’s a mirage.

Our only consolation might be to go shopping.


One response to “Who’s ‘Our Inner Ape’? Or, I got your hippie chimp right here, and it’s not a bonobo

  1. Ah, well, thanks for setting me straight on all of this!


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