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a bonobo world? 12 – in search of happy productive human cultures

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Messalina, a bit naughty maybe, but not quite Genghis Khan

The cliche that bonobos make love not war obviously needs a lot of finessing, but I’m hopeful that it will repay close analysis. A National Geographic photographer, Christian Ziegler has said, in a youtube video, that while he noted plenty of sexual activity during feeding time at a bonobo sanctuary, he only once saw it happen in 40 days of observation in the wild – though whether this counts as extensive observation is questionable. There are a number of videos online featuring face-to-face sexual frottage, which tends to be of brief duration, and it’s impossible to say how long the cameras were running before the hoped-for money shot occurred. One video, however – and it came with a warning – did interest me, as it featured a bit of the old in-out-in-out in the midst of a large group clambering over each other, apparently indifferent to the shenanigans. It made me wonder about public and private sex in the ape world, and about ownership, monogamy and jealousy. 

In the bonobo world, largely controlled by females, or should I say women, children don’t know who their parents are. Imagine if we didn’t know who our parents were, but grew up in a communal world, of adults and other kids, all of whom looked out for us, fed us, played with us, taught us, fought with us, and sexually excited us, though not all at the same time. We might develop special relations with some, and those relations might change over time, depending on our needs, and theirs. It would be a comfortable supportive world, especially if we were girls. The boys would come after us, but we would sense that the females of all ages were more protective, and there was safety, and even power, in numbers. Then the boys would tend to more ingratiating, knowing where the power lay. Sex, when it happened, would be more polite, so to speak. I mean sex with males. Our relations with other girls would also have a sexual element, so we would be able to make comparisons and develop preferences. Variety being the spice of bonobo life, we might occasionally try out others, then return to our favourites.

Imagine all this in a human context. It’s almost beyond imagining in our more formalized, highly separated lives. People mostly live hidden from others in houses or apartments, in nuclear families. Intrusions are rare, and again highly formalised. In the ultramodern era, knocks on the door are virtually never unexpected, they’re prepared for by device-based communications, and privacy and personal property are so sacrosanct as to be the basis of a whole larger-than-life ideology. This kind of separated living goes back to the agricultural revolution, with its land-clearing, its set residents and the gradual growth from tribal groupings to villages to towns and citadels and cities and territories. Inner privacy often went hand-in-hand with outward display, and impressive structures and their grounds were both fortifications and symbols of wealth and power. Clothing, too, layered and elaborate, came to indicate exclusivity, and certainly tended to rule out sexual spontaneity, though it’s likely that such spontaneity had scooted well before the layers of clothing became a thing. 

If only we could uncover the habits of the australopithecines along with their bones. There does seem to be some evidence that bonobos are more like Australopithecus afarensis than are chimps. They have a slightly more upright stance than chimps, they’re a little more differentiated, facially (though this may be disputed) and early neural studies help to explain their less aggressive, more co-operative culture:

We find that bonobos have more gray matter in brain regions involved in perceiving distress in both oneself and others, including the right dorsal amygdala and right anterior insula. Bonobos also have a larger pathway linking the amygdala with the ventral anterior cingulate cortex, a pathway implicated in both top–down control of aggressive impulses as well as bottom–up biases against harming others. We suggest that this neural system not only supports increased empathic sensitivity in bonobos, but also behaviors like sex and play that serve to dissipate tension, thereby limiting distress and anxiety to levels conducive with prosocial behavior.

Of course, these findings, if further verified, lead to a chicken-and-egg question. Surely these neural differences (presumably the comparison here is with chimps) come from an infancy raised in a culture that encouraged or required those connections, but how did this caring-and-sharing culture itself evolve in contrast to the culture north of the Congo? More interestingly, for me, what sorts of cultures were created by the hominins, such as Australopithecus africanus, Australopithecus afarensis, Paranthropus robustus, Homo naledi and all the rest, and what, above all, were male-female and adult-child relations like in these cultures? It seems to me that old Milan Kundera was right – the best questions are those we seem unable to answer. 

So we’re reduced to comparing ourselves with much more recent historical cultures, and they all seem to be patriarchal, dotted with the occasional forceful female (as far as the historical record goes). Artemisia of Halicarnassus, Boudicca of the Iceni, Cleopatra, Agrippina, Hypatia… and I would have loved an exclusive interview with Messalina – venomous vamp or much-maligned sex therapist?   

Have there been any examples of human cultures, ancient or modern, that we can favourably compare with bonobo culture, mutatis mutandis as the philosophers say? Again I think of the international culture of science. Okay, not quite so sexy, and without any infant members, and yet… 


 Sex and Fruit: The Sweet Life of Bonobos | Nat Geo Live (youtube video)



Written by stewart henderson

November 19, 2020 at 9:42 pm

A bonobo world ? personal reflections on societal health 7

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Bertrand Russell – a very well-connected philosopher

This world of reading has long excited me about our scientific and technological achievements, about what we know and are discovering of our solar system, our galaxy and our universe, of our origins, our neurology and our immune system, and so much more, but I’ve also been fascinated, horrified and moved to tears by our history, and our capacity for inflicting and enduring suffering. Even while taking those steps to ‘rational knowledge’, we’ve revealed how unreasoning we are. Aristotle, the founder of syllogistic logic and virtue ethics, believed that many humans were born to be slaves, and that women needed to be ruled over by men due to their lack of control, deceptiveness and general inferiority. Plato’s many dialogues, such as Euthyphro and Protagoras, still provide much food for thought, but his notions of ideal justice and eternal souls have had a corrosively irrational influence. We understandably admire the ancient Greeks but much of their economy and that of other ancient civilisations was based on slavery, and in ancient Egypt as well as in feudal Britain the lower classes were slaves in all but name. The veiling of women began in Mesopotamia, and was common practice in ancient Greece and Rome. All of this betokened hierarchies of class and gender, and the majority of the population lucked out in the lottery of birth and parentage. 

We may feel we’ve escaped from these rigid hierarchies, but it’s rather that we’re less honest or more deluded about them. Certainly the hierarchies aren’t quite as easy to define or identify, but they involve money, power and influence, as they always have. It’s not so much about caste, land ownership or birthright today, it’s about social connections, whether though family, business, academia or politics. It’s often not what you know, but who you know. The philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote of pulling the beard of William Gladstone, four-term Prime Minister of the UK, as a child. Bertrand was himself the grandson of John Russell, twice Prime Minister, and senior government minister for two decades. It wouldn’t be hard to find many other examples of well-connected success, though happily there are counter-examples, such as Newton, Faraday and Einstein. In any case, until recently, those hierarchies were much more fixed than they are today. For example a modern university education can be gained in a multitude of ways, such as scholarships and through government subsidies. Mature age students can be accepted by a simple entry test, something like an IQ test, as I was. This less regimented, more fluid society can easily lead people into the mythical belief that anyone can achieve anything they put your mind to, and that we’re entirely responsible for our achievements in the battle to the top in any sphere of activity. It is the reason, of course, for the rise of libertarianism in many affluent countries. But the fact is that elites and elitism are just as common as ever, and it was ever thus. When Aristotle wrote that some men were born to be slaves, he was insisting upon his own superiority, and that of his associates, those for whom he was writing. 

So the human ape has always been ensnared in a hierarchy, whether as a hunter-gatherer or a computer programmer. Considering the inevitability of such a situation, the question we should ask is, are some hierarchies better or more effective than others for human flourishing, and for our subsistence with other species on the planet? With that question in mind, let’s again consider our ape cousins, the bonobos and the chimps. 

Chimpanzees are far more numerous than bonobos and have been studied more thoroughly in the wild. Like bonobos, they’re an endangered species, their numbers being considerably reduced by deforestation, habitat degradation and poaching – the standard problems inflicted by human apes on all of their cousins. Chimps like to move around, in small travelling bands of a few individuals, but habitat degradation and fragmentation has limited this behavioral inclination, just as land clearing and the takeover and degradation of natural resources by Europeans in Australia has limited the behavioral inclinations and practices of its more ancient human inhabitants. However, these small groups often come together to form larger communities of as much as 150 members. This splitting and combining behaviour, shared by bonobos (and of course by humans), is described as a fission-fusion society. The smaller groups perform different functions, such as an all-male hunting party or an all-female nursing group, or a combination of genders and generations for various purposes, but the social structure is always dominated by males, who fight each other for dominance. Once a particular male has asserted his dominance, he maintains it through aggression, even when there is no challenge from other males. This results in a dominance hierarchy, with a second and third most dominant male, each one threatened from below and threatening the chimp above him. Such a hierarchy is inherently unstable, not only because individuals grow stronger and weaker as they grow and age, but because the fission-fusion society produces shifting coalitions which can alter the balance of power at any time. A dominant male who develops an overly aggressive style might be toppled, and even killed, in a ‘palace coup’ of disgruntled underlings. This allows for a form of political manoeuvring to defeat physical aggression. A less physically strong male may develop political skills, if not to get to the top, to derive benefits from his king-maker role. In this situation, the alpha male may also have to develop political skills as well as displaying aggression. Threats to his power often come during the fusion period of the fission-fusion dynamic, and he often succeeds in maintaining his position through display of force rather than attack, much like a dictator mobilising his forces around the perimeter of a demonstration. 

Female chimps, of course, are not necessarily entirely passive in such circumstances, and will use their connections and their sexual availability to influence the social hierarchy and their own position within it. Female dominance has even been recorded in chimps in captivity, though it is likely very rare. The males are aggressive not only in terms of maintaining or overturning the hierarchy but in maintaining, defending or expanding territory, though this territoriality may vary between subspecies, and may even be affected in the wild by those humans who study them and provide them with food, so as to keep them nearby. Think of the territoriality of your pet dog, who is kept well-fed and cared for by the pack leader, yourself, and feels threatened by canine and even human encroachers. 


Thomas Crump, A brief history of science, 2001

Written by stewart henderson

November 6, 2020 at 10:51 pm

bonobo society, sex and females

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sexual dimorphism - a difference on average, but massive individual variation

sexual dimorphism – a difference on average, but massive individual variation

Men are bigger than women, slightly. That’s how things evolved. It’s called sexual dimorphism. It happens with many species, the genders are different in size, shape, coloration, whatever. With humans there’s a size difference, and something of a shape difference, in breasts and hips, but really these aren’t significant. Compare, say, the deep-water triplewort seadevil, a type of anglerfish, in which the female is around 30 cms long, and the male a little over a centimetre. The difference in mass would be too embarrassing to relate.

Among our primate cousins the greatest sexual dimorphism, in size as well as other features, is found in the mandrills, with the male being two to three times the size of the females. In some gorillas there’s a substantial size difference too in favour of the males, and in fact in all of the primate species the male has a size advantage. But size isn’t everything, and the bigger doesn’t have to always dominate.

Female bonobos are smaller than the males, even more so than in humans, yet they enjoy a higher social status than in any other primate society, probably including humans, though it’s hard to compare, since humanity’s many societies vary considerably on the roles and status of women. So how have females attained this exalted status within one of the most highly socialised primate species?

Bonobos and chimpanzees are equally our closest living relatives. It isn’t clear when exactly they separated from each other, but some experts claim it may have been less than a million years ago. Enough time for them to become quite distinct physically, according to the ethologist Franz De Waal. Bonobos are more gracile with longer limbs and a smaller head, and they have a distinctive hairstyle, with a neat parting down the middle. They’re also more easily individuated by their facial features, being in this sense more like humans. And there are also major differences in their social behaviour. Male chimps are dominant in the troupe, often brutally so, whereas bonobo society is less clearly hierarchical, and considerably less violent overall. De Waal, one of the world’s foremost experts on both primates, became interested in bonobos primarily through studies on aggression. He noted that sometimes, after a violent clash, two chimps would come together to hug and kiss. Being interested in such apparent reconciliations and their implications, he decided to look at reconciling behaviours in other primates. What he discovered in bonobos (at San Diego Zoo, which in 1983 housed the world’s largest captive colony) was rather ‘shocking’; their social life was profoundly mediated by sex. Not that he was the first to discover this; other primatologists had written about it, noting also that bonobo sex was far more human-like than chimp sex, but their observations were obscurely worded and not well disseminated. There are other aspects of the physical nature of sexual relations in bonobos that favour females, such as female sexual receptivity, indicated by swelling and a reddening of the genital area, which pertains for a much longer period than in chimps. Female bonobos, like humans and unlike other primates, are sexually receptive more or less all the time.

This isn’t to say that bonobos are oversexed, whatever that may mean. Sexual relations are far from constant, they are casual, sporadic and quickly done with. Often they’re associated with finding food, and it seems likely that sexual relations are used to reconcile tensions related to food availability and other potential causes of conflict.

So how does this use of sex relate to the status of females in bonobo society. I’ll explore this further in the next post.

bonobo relations - more than just sex

bonobo relations – more than just sex

Written by stewart henderson

September 4, 2016 at 1:32 pm

matriarchy – surely it couldn’t be worse than patriarchy?

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In one of the international English classes I occasionally teach, we have an opportunity for debate. Here’s a debate topic I’ve thought up but haven’t yet tried out: If 90 to 99% of the world’s business and political leaders were female, instead of male as they are today, would the world be a better place to live in?

It’s not a question that’ll find a definitive answer in the foreseeable future, but my strong view is that the world would be better.

Why? I’m not entirely convinced that women are the gentler sex, and I’m very wary of succumbing to a facile view of women as inherently more calm, co-operative and conciliatory, but I think that on balance, or statistically, they’re more risk averse, less impulsive, and, yes, more group-oriented. Whether such tendencies are natural or nurtured, I’m not at all sure. It’s a question I intend to investigate.

So to stimulate myself in pursuing the subject of patriarchy and its obverse I’m reading Women after all: sex, evolution and the end of male supremacy, a rather optimistically-titled book by an American doctor and teacher, Melvin Konner. It’s one of many sources of information I hope to access in the future. It argues that there are fundamental differences between males and females, and that females are the superior gender. I’m not sure about the ‘fundamentals’, or categorical differences, but I agree that the current differences can and probably should be interpreted in terms of female superiority. Certainly, given the needs and responsibilities of humanity in this time, woman appear to have more of the goods than males for facing the future. After all, if we look back at the last 6000 or so years of human history, it’s dominated by male warfare, and if we look at today’s most violent and brutish cultures, they’re clearly the most patriarchal.

Of course if you believe that women and men are fundamentally different, as Konner does, then it becomes straightforward to argue for women being in control, because it’s highly unlikely, indeed impossible I’d say, that these fundamentally different genders are precisely equal in value. And given the devastation and suffering that men have caused over the period of what we call ‘human civilisation’, and given that women are the (mostly) loving mothers of all of us, it seems obvious that, if there is a fundamental difference, women’s qualities are of more value.

On the other hand if you’re a bit more skeptical about fundamental differences, as I am, and you suspect that the idea that ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’ is as applicable to women as it is to men, you’ll feel rather more uncertain about a profoundly matriarchal society. And yet…

I draw some inspiration for the benefits of matriarchy from the closest living relatives of homo sapiens. There are two of them. The line that led to us split off from the line that led to chimps and bonobos around 6 million years ago. Chimps and bonobos split from their common ancestor much more recently, perhaps only a little over a million years ago, so they’re both equally related to us. Chimps and bonobos look very very alike, which is presumably why bonobos were only recognised as a separate species in the 1930s – quite extraordinary for such a physically large animal. But of course bonobo and chimp societies are very very different, and vive la différence. I’ve written about bonobo society before, here and here, but can’t get enough of a good thing, so I’ll look more closely at that society in the next few posts.

I think I'd rather be a bonobo

I think I’d rather be a bonobo

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Written by stewart henderson

August 25, 2016 at 10:55 pm