Bonobos and the Politics of Human Nature

Bonobos often adopt a "missionary" posture during copulation (photograph by Frans de Waal).

As part of the series of reposts leading up to my review of Frans de Waal's newest book The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society I present the second of three pieces that appeared after Ian Parker's 2007 article "Swingers" appeared in The New Yorker.

As I wrote earlier in Bonobo (Re)Visions, Ian Parker's "exposé" in The New Yorker was beautifully written but wrong on many levels. Now the straw man who Parker claims to have torn down, primatologist Frans de Waal, answers his polemical critic with a piece in eSkeptic.

What was particularly interesting in the fallout from the original article was how widely The New Yorker piece was referenced by conservative pundits (who often view the magazine as synonymous with the Communist party). Parker turned his romp through the jungle into an attack piece that conservatives could rally behind - if bonobos aren't as peace loving as we thought then we must be destined to be violent and patriarchal.

Dinesh D'Souza, the Hoover Institution Fellow who joined the Jerry Fallwell loony bin when he blamed 9/11 on liberals, wrote on his blog that

Supposedly bonobos are bisexual apes who engage in incessant and indiscriminate sexual activity as an alternative to power struggles and male wars of domination. I'm surprised the Democratic Party hasn't changed its symbol from the donkey to the bonobo.

Well, maybe the liberals should put their bonobsession on hold for a while... de Waal got it mostly wrong.

Quite obviously D'Souza and the other right-wingers were all too quick to embrace the "human tendency to distort evidence to suit our prejudices" that they were condemning in others. As eSkeptic states in the introduction to de Waal's article:

The spindoctoring of science for political purposes, of course, is a long and dishonorable tradition, so nothing new here in that regard. However, it is interesting that so many people wish to deny the undeniable relationship between humans and chimps, and at the same time cannot seem to help finding political meanings in primate behavior that supports either a liberal or conservative agenda.

Bonobos and chimpanzees are equally related to humans (between 98.6% and 99.4%). This is because we shared a common ancestor with both approximately 6 million years ago. The ancestors of bonobos and chimpanzees split off from each other roughly 3 million years later. Behaviorally we share aspects with both: male coalitions and border raids in chimpanzees, female coalitions that reduce male coercion in bonobos, brutal dominance competitions in chimpanzees and cooperative interactions for a common goal that are more prominent in bonobos.

Anatomically we share more in common with bonobos, including the more frontally located clitoris and vulva that allows for face-to-face mating. We also share bonobo's greater penchant for using sexuality for nonreproductive purposes and in partner combinations not strictly approved of in the Bible.

That we're equally related to both species, and that we find similarities with both, is exactly what you would expect. However, it says nothing about what we're destined to be. Biology is not destiny, whether you're arguing as a liberal or a conservative. However, biology does provide a framework that our destiny lies within. We're not going to create a society based on selfless cooperation any more than we are of selfish individualism. The reason is we're apes, not termites or cats. What the differences between chimpanzees and bonobos represent, however, is that what previous generations thought was outside of that framework is now safely tucked within. The politics over human nature will undoubtedly spin on in the frantic whirlwind of sound bytes and personal attacks. Meanwhile the gears of science will continue to operate, slowly separating the solid evidence from the rubbish that the pundits expel.


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I sometimes wonder if Dinesh D'souza and Ramesh Ponnuru are actually the same person. Their ability to look through a keyhole with both eyes at the same time is awfully similar...and I mean awfully.
You've revealed a lot about how we mistake high IQ, which I don't doubt D'souza has, with how we interpret reality. I suspect that if there's a gene for being suspicous of anything new, or even downright hostile to change, those guys got it in spades.

There's no "gene" for being suspicious or afraid of novelty, but genetics probably plays a strong part in the psychological make-up of many conservatives. A paper that came out last year in Science demonstrated this and Scibling Razib did a nice write up of it. Also see a more recent study on this in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology which has a good review at the BPS Research Digest Blog.

For a certain type of journalist (or evolutionary psychologist), nothing is more satisfying than exposing hippy hypocrisy.

I took a shot at this at Psychology Today a few months ago when the mainstream press went wild with supposed "debunking" of the "peaceful bonobo myth." The desperation of the hunger to disprove the possibility that bonobos can exist is psychologically telling. Sort of similar to Freeman's obsessive need to debunk Mead's research in Samoa.

Some of the rhetoric is almost embarrassing:

The headline from Reuters reads, "Hippie apes make war as well as love, study finds." Another smugly assures us that "Despite 'peacenik' reputation, bonobos hunt and eat other primates too." A third, under the headline, "Sex Crazed Apes Feast on Killing, Too," opens with, "As hippies had Altamont [where Hell's Angels killed concert-goers], so bonobos have Salonga National Park, where scientists have witnessed the supposedly peace-loving primate hunting and eating monkey children." Sex crazed?" "Monkey children?"

The Reuters article starts out, âDespite their reputation as lovers, not fighters, of the primate world, bonobos actually hunt and kill monkeysâ¦.â

I remember a year or so ago here in Ireland, there was a sensational article in a national newspaper about swingers (I don't want to draw a parallel between swingers and Bonobos, bear with me, I do have a point). It described a social meet at a hotel in our town as a hard-core BDSM meeting, with leather, whips, bondage and beatings.

We spoke to someone who was there. It was apparently a social meet 'n greet thing for a swingers' website, and in their words, "We would have been quite happy for the kids to be there, you wouldn't guess from anyone's behaviour that this was anything but a social."

This was a poor quality rag mag. A few months before, a better quality newspaper had also done an article on swingers, and had given an honest picture of otherwise perfectly normal people indulging in consentual casual sex. While the author made clear that she would never be comfortable with such sanctioned infidelity herself, she did not distort the facts of what happened at the party she attended to draw more readers.

To me, it sounds as if this is a not uncommon pattern. Paper A does a good article, the journalist at least attempting to stick to the facts, though certain sensational issues might be accentuated. Paper B takes the same subject and uses claims only distantly related to facts, or knowingly and deliberately distort the facts, to write something they know will sell.

Unfortunately the more sensational lies often get more air time and coverage than the less salacious truth. It's much less fun to hear that swingers are just the guy next door and his wife having a bit of rumpy with the neighbour across the street, than it is to imagine them as shiny leather-clad monsters with whips and chains. It's much less fun to admit that bonobos' occasional fighting is nothing spectacular than it is to claim that scientists are evil would-be overlords who have deliberately distorted their findings to suit their own agenda.

By Anida Adler (not verified) on 19 Sep 2009 #permalink

I was hoping a parsed view of bonobo sexuality that could contribute anything to the already, passe, demode, alicombe tiring discussion of human sex, politics, so forth and so on..dinesh desouza ??...i thought the guy had been deported. The photograph is rather repulsive. What is the point if bonobos do the missionary "position" (sic), they certainly dont know it is? show me a bonobo threesome and will start talking