an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

a bonobo world? an outlier, but also a possibility: 2

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1. the small world of bonobos

Definitely one of the best introductions to the bonobo world is Frans De Waal’s 2006 essay for Scientific American, available online. It describes a species that branched off from its chimp cousin some two million years ago. Although genetic researchers have made it known that humans are equally related to chimps and bonobos, we’ve come to realise that a basic bean-count of genes shared is an overly simplistic approach to measuring our connectedness with other species. In any case we still have much to learn from both of our closest living relatives, especially in terms of their social relationships, and our own. We have of course developed a culture, or a range of cultures that are much more diverse and dynamic than our primate cousins, which is some cause for optimism. We are, I hope, always learning better how and what to learn.

I believe it is very much worth looking at chimps and bonobos, not as opposites, which of course they aren’t, nor quite as models for humans to follow, but as two of many possible forms of our species in an earlier stage of cultural development. The fact is, and I should think this is unarguable, early humans, in their territoriality, their aggression, their gender-based division of labour, and their ownership fetishism, have largely developed from the basic cultural outlook of chimps rather than bonobos. Our history is marred by mostly male violence and hubris, and the power of possession, formerly of land, latterly of resources and technological know-how, and their transformation into financial power and influence, leading to systemic inequalities and a cult of selfishness.

But of course human culture isn’t one thing, and it has been subject to dizzying developments in modern times. Most astonishing is the growth of knowledge and its availability and rapid dissemination in the internet age. I’ll be taking advantage of that growth and availability in what follows. However the ‘democratisation’ of knowledge that the internet potentially provides is hampered by various anti-democratic forces, such as governments who are largely able, and very much concerned, to control information flow within their borders, and social media moguls who are less interested in accurate knowledge than in the monetisation of any and every opinion. 

Whether the internet revolution, which has been with us for little more than a generation, will lead to a greater homogeneity of human culture, or its opposite, or neither in any clear sense, is yet to be seen, and so it might seem a little rich to try to learn, in our human world of close to 8 billion denizens, from the habits of a small group of primates struggling to eke out an existence in a forested region south of the Congo River. Current estimates of bonobo numbers in the wild range from 10,000 to 50,000. As is well known, their habitat is often under threat due to the political instability in the region, which has also made it difficult to assess numbers. In any case it’s clear, as with most endangered species, that the greatest threat to their survival in the wild is Homo sapiens.

Of course, one way to learn from them is to treat them as just another culture. This no doubt leads to questions about the culture concept, which will be further explored, but it seems clear that the most intelligent non-human species, such as chimps and bonobos, most cetaceans, elephants and some corvids, are highly socially organised, to say the least. Of course, always thinking of counter-examples, I can’t account for the intelligence of octopuses and some other largely solitary cephalopods, though one theory has it that their complex neurology developed as a defence against a wide range of predators – which has also been cited, mutatis mutandis, as an explanation for the complex development of culture in western Europe. 

One of the most interesting questions about bonobos and their largely female-dominated society is how that society came about, considering that bonobo females, like chimps, gorillas and humans, are smaller on average than the males. Clearly, size and attendant strength is an advantage in the kinds of environments early humans and their primate cousins had to deal with. We have no clear answer to this question, though it’s noteworthy that the bonobo diet, being less meat-heavy than that of chimps, would require less aggressive hunting, and strength to overcome prey. This raises the question – did the rise of females lead to a less carnivorous diet or was it the other way around?

First, let’s look at the bonobo diet. They are very much tree-dwellers, and fruit always forms a large part of their diet, but also leaves, seeds and flowers. Animal foods include worms and some insects, and the occasional snake or flying squirrel. This suggests that they rarely go on hunting expeditions. The bonobo habitat is generally more forested than that of chimps, and they spend more time in the tree-tops, harvesting the food they find there. It could be that the physical habitat of chimps, which is relatively more savannah-like, actually led to a more spread-out, competitive culture, compared to the closer-knit bonobos in their denser, tighter environment. If this is true, it’s reasonable to infer that the strength advantage of the larger males might be diminished by habitat. Perhaps, given a few million more years, the size difference between males and females may reduce. 

On another point of physicality, bonobos are described as slightly more gracile, or slender, than chimps, which has led some experts to believe that their physical resemblance to Australopithecus makes them closer to living examples of our direct examples than chimps. Others see different connections:

According to Australian anthropologists Gary Clark and Maciej Henneberg, human ancestors went through a bonobo-like phase featuring reduced aggression and associated anatomical changes, exemplified in Ardipithecus ramidus.

Using bonobos as a guide to potential human behaviour often meets with strong push-back. I’ve experienced this myself in a number of conversations, and usually the argument is that we are so far removed from our primate cousins, and so much more culturally evolved, and diverse, that comparisons are odious. However, I suspect much of this is due to an arrogance about our sophistication which prevents us from learning lessons, not only from other primates but from other cultures that we deem inferior, even without consciously acknowledging the fact. Yet we are learning those lessons, and benefitting from them. Generally speaking, we – I mean those from a WASP perspective, like myself – are recognising that indigenous or first nation cultures were far better adapted to their environments than the later white arrivals – and that this adaptation was hard-won over many generations, during which a collective bank of experience developed. I would cite Bruce Pascoe’s book, Dark Emu, and its many references, for bringing about greater recognition of the achievements of Australia’s long-resident non-European cultures, for example. 



Dark Emu, by Bruce Pascoe, Magabala Books, 2014

Written by stewart henderson

October 23, 2020 at 3:12 pm

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