an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

still bitten by the bonobo bug…

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Having written quite a few essays on a future bonoboesque world, I’ve found myself in possession of a whole book on our Pan paniscus relatives for the first time. All that I’ve gleaned about these fellow apes until now has been from the vasty depths of the internet, a gift that will doubtless keep on giving. My benefactor apologised for her gift to me, describing it as a coffee-table book, perhaps more pictorial than informative, but I’ve already learned much that’s new to me from the first few pages. For example, I knew from my basic research that bonobos were first identified as a distinct species in the late 1920s or early 1930s –  I could never get the date straight, perhaps because I’d read conflicting accounts. De Waal presents a more comprehensive and interesting story, which involves, among other things, an ape called Mafuka, the most popular resident, or inmate, of Amsterdam Zoo between 2011 and 2016, later identified as a bonobo. The zoo now features a statue of Mafuka.

More important, though, for me, is that everything I’ve read so far reminds me of the purpose of my bonobo essays, but also makes me wonder if I haven’t focussed enough on one central feature of bonobo society, probably out of timidity. Here’s how De Waal puts it:

It is impossible to understand the social life of this ape without attention to its sex life: the two are inseparable. Whereas in most other species, sexual behaviour is a fairly distinct category, in the bonobo it has become an integral of social relationships, and not just between males and females. Bonobos engage in sex in virtually every partner combination: male-male, male-female, female-female, male-juvenile, female-juvenile, and so on. The frequency of sexual contact is also higher than among most other primates.

In our own society, definitely still male-dominated but also with a legacy of religious sexual conservatism, this kind of all-in, semi-masturbatory sexual contact is absolutely beyond the pale. I’m reminded of the Freudian concept of sublimation I learned about as a teen – the eros or sex drive is channelled into other passionate, creative activities, and, voila, human civilisation! And yet, we’re still obsessed with sex, which we’re expected to transmute into sexual fulfilment with a lifelong partner. Meanwhile, the popularity of porn, or what I prefer to call the sex video industry, as well as the world’s oldest profession, indicates that there’s much that’s not quite right about our sex lives.

This raises questions about monogamy, the nuclear family, and even the human concept of love. This is ancient, but nevertheless dangerous territory, so for now I’ll stick with bonobos. As with chimps, female bonobos often, though not always, move to other groups at sexual maturity, a practice known as philopatry. Interestingly, this practice has similarities to exogamous marriage practices, for example among some Australian Aboriginal groups. It’s interesting, then, that female-female bonds tend to be the strongest among bonobos, considering that there’s no kinship involved.

Needless to say, bonobos don’t live in nuclear families, and child-care is a more flexible arrangement than amongst humans, though the mother is naturally the principal carer. And it seems that bonobo mothers have a subtly closer relationship with their sons than their daughters:

the bond between mother and son is of particular significance in bonobo society where the son will maintain his connection with his mother for life and depend upon her for his social standing within the group. For example, the son of the society’s dominant female, the strong matriarch who maintains social order, will rise in the ranks of the group, presumably to ensure the establishment and perpetuation of unaggressive, non-competitive, cooperative male characteristics, both learnt and genetic, within the group.

Considering this point, it would be interesting to research mother-son relations among human single-parent families in the WEIRD world, a situation that has become more common in recent decades. Could it be that, given other support networks, rather than the disadvantages often associated with one-parent families in human societies, males from such backgrounds are of the type that command more respect than other males? Particularly, I would suspect, from females. Of course, it’s hard to generalise about human upbringing, but we might be able to derive lessons from bonobo methods. Bonobo mothers rarely behave punitively towards their sons, and those sons remain attached to their mothers throughout their lives. The sons of high-status females also attain high status within the male hierarchy.

Yet we are far from being able to emulate bonobo matriarchy, as we’re still a very patriarchal society. Research indicates that many women are still attracted to high-status, philandering men. That’s to say, they’ve been ‘trained’ to climb the success ladder through marriage or co-habitation than through personal achievement. They’ve also been trained into the idea of high-status males as dominating other males as well as females. It is of course changing, though too slowly, and with too many backward moves for the more impatient among us. Two macho thugocracies, Russia and China, are currently threatening the movement towards collaboration and inclusivity that we see in female-led democracies such as Taiwan, New Zealand and a number of Scandinavian countries. It may well be that in the aftermath of the massive destruction wrought by these thugocracies, there will come a reckoning, as occurred after the two ‘world wars’ with the creation of the UN and the growth of the human rights movement and international aid organisations, but it is frustrating to contemplate the suffering endured in the meantime, by those unlucky enough to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Now of course all this might be seen as presenting a romanticised picture of bonobos (not to mention female humans), which De Waal and other experts warn us against. The difference in aggression between bonobos and chimps is more a matter of degree than of type, perhaps, and these differences can vary with habitat and the availability of resources. And yet we know from our studies of human societies that male-dominated societies are more violent. And male domination has nothing to do with simple numbers, it is rather about how a society is structured, and how that structure is reinforced. For example I’ve written recently about how the decidedly male god of the Abrahamic religions, originally written as YWH or Elohim, emerged from a patriarchal, polygamous society in the Sinai region, with its stories of Jacob and Abraham and their many wives, which was reinforced in its structure by origin myths in which woman was created out of a man’s rib and was principally responsible for the banishment from paradise. The WEIRD world is struggling to disentangle itself from these myths and attitudes, and modern science is its best tool for doing so.

One of the most interesting findings, then, from modern neurology, is that while there are no categorical differences between the male and the female brain in humans, there are significant statistical differences – which might make for a difference in human society as a whole. To explain further: no categorical difference means that, if you were a professional neurologist who had been studying the human brain for decades, and were presented with a completely disembodied but still functional human brain to analyse, you wouldn’t be able to assert categorically that this brain belonged to a male or a female. That’s because the differences among female brains, and among male brains, are substantial – a good reason for promoting gender fluidity. However, statistically, there are also substantial differences between male and female brains, with males having more ‘grey’ material (the neurons) and females having more ‘white’ material (the myelinated connections between neurons), and with males having slightly higher brain volume, in accord with general sexual dimorphism. In a 2017 British study involving some 5,000 subjects, researchers found that:

Adjusting for age, on average… women tended to have significantly thicker cortices than men. Thicker cortices have been associated with higher scores on a variety of cognitive and general intelligence tests.

This sounds promising, but it’s doubtful that anything too insightful can be made of it, any more than a study of bonobo neurophysiology would provide us with insights into their culture. But, you never know…


Frans De Waal & Frans Lanting, Bonobo: the forgotten ape, 1997.

on the origin of the god called God, part 2: the first writings, the curse on women, the jealous god

Written by stewart henderson

June 13, 2022 at 2:43 pm

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