Bonobo Society: Amicable, Amorous and Run by Females
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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Fri, 25 Apr 97 16:51:07 -0700
Subject: Bonobo Society: Amicable, Amorous and Run by Females
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NY Times C 4
April 22, 1997
By NATALIE ANGIER
[N]ature's raucous bestiary rarely serves up good role models for human
behavior, unless you happen to work on the trading floor of the New York
Stock Exchange. But there is one creature that stands out from the
chest-thumping masses as an example of amicability, sensitivity and, well,
humanness: a little-known ape called the bonobo, or, less accurately, the
Before bonobos can be fully appreciated, however, two human prejudices must
be overcome. The first is, fellows, the female bonobo is the dominant sex,
though the dominance is so mild and unobnoxious that some researchers view
bonobo society as a matter of "co-dominance," or equality between the
sexes. Fancy that.
The second hurdle is human squeamishness about what in the 80s were called
PDAs, or public displays of affection, in this case very graphic ones.
Bonobos lubricate the gears of social harmony with sex, in all possible
permutations and combinations: males with females, males with males,
females with females, and even infants with adults. The sexual acts include
intercourse, genital-to-genital rubbing, oral sex, mutual masturbation and
even a practice that people once thought they had a patent on: French
Bonobos use sex to appease, to bond, to make up after a fight, to ease
tensions, to cement alliances. Humans generally wait until after a nice
meal to make love; bonobos do it beforehand, to alleviate the stress and
competitiveness often seen among animals when they encounter a source of
Lest this all sound like a nonstop Caligulean orgy, Dr. Frans de Waal, a
primatologist at Emory University in Atlanta who is the author of "Bonobo:
The Forgotten Ape," emphasizes otherwise. "Sex is there, it's pervasive,
it's critical, and bonobo society would collapse without it," he said in
an interview. "But it's not what people think it is. It's not driven by
orgasm or seeking release. Nor is it often reproductively driven. Sex for
a bonobo is casual, it's quick and once you're used to watching it, it
begins to look like any other social interaction." The new book, with
photographs by Frans Lanting, will be published in May by the University
of California Press.
In "Bonobo," de Waal draws upon his own research as well as that of many
other primatologists to sketch a portrait of a species much less familiar
to most people than are the other great apes -- the gorilla, the orangutan
and the so-called common chimpanzee. The bonobo, found in the dense
equatorial rain forests of Zaire, was not officially discovered until 1929,
long after the other apes had been described in the scientific literature.
Even today there are only about 100 in zoos around the country, compared
with the many thousands of chimpanzees in captivity. Bonobos are closely
related to chimpanzees, but they have a more graceful and slender build,
with smaller heads, slimmer necks, longer legs and less burly upper torsos.
When standing or walking upright, bonobos have straighter backs than do
the chimpanzees, and so assume a more humanlike posture.
Far more dramatic than their physical differences are their behavioral
distinctions. Bonobos are much less aggressive and hot-tempered than are
chimpanzees, and are not nearly as prone to physical violence. They are
less obsessed with power and status than are their chimpanzee cousins, and
more consumed with Eros.
As de Waal puts it in his book, "The chimpanzee resolves sexual issues with
power; the bonobo resolves power issues with sex." Or more coyly,
chimpanzees are from Mars, bonobos are from Venus.
All of which has relevance for understanding the roots of human nature. De
Waal seeks to correct the image of humanity's ancestors as invariably
chimpanzee-like, driven by aggression, hierarchical machinations, hunting,
warfare and male dominance. He points out that bonobos are as genetically
close to humans as are chimpanzees, and that both are astonishingly similar
to mankind, sharing at least 98 percent of humans' DNA. "The take-home
message is, there's more flexibility in our lineage than we thought," de
Waal said. "Bonobos are just as close to us as are chimpanzees, so we can't
push them aside."
Indeed, humans appear to possess at least some bonobo-like characteristics,
particularly the extracurricular use of sex beyond that needed for
reproduction, and perhaps a more robust capacity for cooperation than some
die-hard social Darwinists might care to admit.
One unusual aspect of bonobo society is the ability of females to form
strong alliances with other unrelated females. In most primates, the males
leave their birthplaces on reaching maturity as a means of avoiding incest,
and so the females that form the social core are knit together by kinship.
Among bonobos, females disperse at adolescence, and have to insinuate
themselves into a group of strangers. They make friends with sexual
overtures, and are particularly solicitous of the resident females.
The constructed sisterhood appears to give females a slight edge over
resident males, who, though they may be related to one another, do not tend
to act as an organized alliance. For example, the females usually have
priority when it comes to eating, and they will stick up for one another
should the bigger and more muscular male try to act aggressively. Female
alliances may have arisen to counter the threat of infanticide by males,
which is quite common in other species, including the chimpanzee, but has
never been observed among bonobos.
De Waal said that many men grow indignant when they learn of the bonobo's
social structure. "After one of my talks, a famous German professor jumped
up and said, 'What is wrong with these males?' " he recalled. Yet de Waal
said the bonobo males might not have reason to rebel. "They seem to be in
a perfectly good situation," he said. "The females have sex with them all
the time, and they don't have to fight over it so much among themselves.
I'm not sure they've lost anything, except for their dominance."
© 1997 Peter Langston