an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

Archive for the ‘chimpanzees’ Category

a bonobo world 37: chimps r us?

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human tool use

There are a number of videos, including one by David Attenborough’s Planet Earth team, showing how chimps are able to engage in planned attacks on neighbouring chimp groups in a way that resembles, and is seen as ancestral to, tribal warfare among hominids and humans. The 4-minute Planet Earth vid doesn’t mention whether the attacking chimps are all male – a question of great interest to me – though it does mention an attack on an enemy female, which is unsurprising, considering human warfare. The fact that defeated chimps are sometimes eaten raises the grizzly question about our more recent ancestors, and our human selves. We may never have eaten our human victims alive (though we probably have), but we have subjected them to far more excruciating suffering than any other Earth-bound species could manage.

I’ve often claimed that we’re leaving warfare behind us, especially with the push to female empowerment, but I’m never quite sure if this is just wishful thinking. We should never allow ourselves to be complacent about apparent trends, to assume they’re somehow inevitable. And of course while need to push for such empowerment, we shouldn’t assume that this will produce the desired result, regarding ‘peace, love and understanding’ or anything else. We need to examine the evidence.

That’s why bonobo culture is so intensely interesting. It raises important questions. What exactly is the relationship between the power structure within bonobo groups – power held mostly by females – and their level of in-group aggression? How exactly does this compare with human power structures and human-to human aggression? How do these different power structures relate to hunting practices and diet? We know that the bonobo diet includes less meat than that of chimps, but is this due more to environment (bonobos are more arboreal, for example), or to social structure? Humans, we know, can get by on a vegetarian diet, and we also know that a less meat-heavy diet is more beneficial for the environment. We have also moved far beyond our primate cousins in being able to produce food through cultivation, using, over time, less and less land to produce more and more food. We even have the means, if not the will, to mass-produce artificial meat – ‘you won’t believe it’s not meat’.

Yet male aggression, in the domestic sphere, in politics, on the sports field, and in riotous assemblies, is as much a problem as ever. A world turned upside-down, with government, business, the law, science, academia and the military being led by women to the same extent as they are led by men today, that’s the impossible dream scenario that may solve this problem. Or not. But then, bonobos are so like chimps, aren’t they? I mean physically. But socially they’re not. The differences aren’t that great, and it only took a million or two years to produce them.

Of course, that’s where we’re hugely different. The changes we’ve undergone – we of European ancestry – in only the past few thousand years have been astonishing, and they do seem to be accelerating. But in those developments there’s hope. If you’re prepared to believe we can find solutions to anthropogenic global warming, to the loss of species diversity, to our own ageing population, and to the various national and cultural enmities that plague us as a species, then you can surely believe we can move towards a happier, sexier bonobo-type social existence with all the human benefits we can add to it through our extraordinarily imaginative, creative, problem-solving minds. Chimps r us, it may sometimes seem, but with the ascent of woman, bonobos r our future. At least it’s worth a try. I for one would love to be a male in a female-dominant human world. At least I just can’t imagine how it would be worse than the world we’ve made for ourselves.


Violent chimpanzee attack – Planet Earth – BBC wildlife (video)

Written by stewart henderson

April 26, 2021 at 11:16 pm

A bonobo world and other impossibilities 24: women and warfare (1)

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The following is re-posted and was first written on this blog in December 2018, but I’m doing this under a new title (with some changes) because it clearly belongs in this series.

female ring-tailed lemur – strong and sexy

I recently listened to a bit of historian Margaret McMillan, along with some military reps, on the radio talking about warfare past and future. It was recorded during a public talk on the topic. I’ve got her book, The Uses and Abuses of History, which I’ve not yet read, but I was struck by her pessimistic attitude. Of course she’s right to say that warfare isn’t about to disappear, and dog knows we have a proliferation of macho thugs on the global scene at present, but her somewhat dismissive description of Pinker’s thesis, that the world is getting less violent, rather irked me. She described the thesis as ‘persuasive but too positive’ or some such term (which struck me as odd if not disingenuous – obviously she wasn’t persuaded). To me, considering that, almost to the end of the nineteenth century, warfare was a way of life for many a European male, and that the so-called Great War showed so many people how disastrous zero-sum game nationalism and one-eyed patriotism can be, and how far we have come, generally, from seeing other cultures as ‘savage’ or backward, and especially how far we’ve progressed in multiculturalism over the past century or so, I can’t accept that we haven’t made great strides in reducing warfare among civilised nations in the 20th century and beyond. Not, of course, without great cost, in the early half of that century especially. Our knowledge of our own destructive capabilities has acted as something of a brake.

But it was a response during question time that has prompted me to write. MacMillan was asked whether things would be better if, say, the US President was a woman, or some such thing. Anyway the gist of the question was whether warfare would be reduced if women were in charge. Macmillan was again sceptical/pessimistic, citing Indira Ghandi’s record as India’s PM. Of course she could’ve cited others, like Margaret Thatcher, or even Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace prizewinner who’s been so much under fire for Burma’s treatment of its Rohingya population. But I found this response to be shallow and fatuous. The case of Aung San Suu Kyi is most telling – she’s largely a captive of the all-male military, all Buddhists like the all-male monks who’ve been most active in the Rohingya persecutions. But it’s the same for all female heads of state. Their cabinets and their political advisers are overwhelmingly male, they have to deal with a military sector which is entirely male, and a business sector which is much the same. All the power in all the lands you care to mention is massively male. Massively. In order to seriously answer the question ‘What if women were in charge?’ you have to imagine a ‘world turned upside down’. Anything less, as I say, would be a fatuous and shallow response. You would have to imagine a world with a more or less all-female political-military-business sector. And if you think that’s crazy, why don’t you think the current more or less all-male power situation is crazy?

The fact is that statistically, women are less aggressive than men. We can go into all sorts of genetic, hormonal, cultural and environmental reasons for this – and it’s important to explore all of that – but the fact itself is undeniable. It also appears that women are more collaborative – more able to work especially with other women. Of course women can be aggressive and highly competitive – I love women’s sports, but I notice that in women’s soccer and basketball I’ve never once seen the kind of all-in biffo that quite regularly spoils the men’s version of these sports. This is no accident (and nor is it necessarily a permanent feature – societies evolve, for better or worse).

Wars in the past have always been associated with manliness – not just physical warfare, but the kind of business and political warfare that Trump – the archetypal wannabe macho ‘winner’ – engages in. And in an increasingly interconnected and inter-reliant global scenario, this kind of warfare is proving more and more counter-productive.

I believe that one day – though hardly in the near future – we will socially evolve, out of sheer necessity, into civilisations in which women hold the balance of power. It won’t simply be a ‘world turned upside down’ but more like a move from chimp-like society to bonobo-like society. I’ve held this view for a long time but I’ve hardly dared express it. Luckily, so few people read my writing that I’m unlikely to experience much blowback, but in any case many would argue that it’s illegitimate to compare humans with other species. Not just because of the essentially religious idea of ‘human specialness’, but because ‘civilisation’ or ‘culture’ has so altered the human psyche that it’s essentially useless to compare us with species that either don’t have culture or have it in only the most rudimentary form.

I doubt if Darwin would agree, as much of his work focussed on the extraordinary complexity of non-human species, and the ‘instinctiveness’ of humans. In any case I’ll focus now on other primates, all of whom are socially organised in one way or another.

The lemurs of Madagascar are prosimians, species of primates that are considered less ‘evolved’ than simians. Outside of their current island home, lemurs were out-competed by the more adapted species they gave rise to. Fascinatingly, all lemur species are female-dominant, though not always through sexual dimorphism. Lemurs live in small groups, with a generally even male-female ratio. A key feature of lemur social life is the creation of coalitions, especially as regards sexual behaviour, and sexual behaviour, obviously, is key to any species’ survival and development. The lemurs are something of a mystery in regard to their female-dominant traits, which has even given rise to a slightly pejorative title for the mystery – the lemur syndrome. In any case, understanding their group dynamics, involving coalitions, competition and sex, inter alia, and linking this behaviour to genes, gene expression and neurological findings – which are being increasingly honed and targeted – is essential to solving the mystery.

The same goes, of course, for all prosimian and simian species. The vast majority of them are male-dominant, often, but not always reflected in a greater or lesser degree of sexual dimorphism. Size isn’t everything in species with complex and sometimes gender-based group dynamics. And so I come to that old favourite topic, chimps and bonobos, our equal-closest living relatives.

Chimps can be violent towards each other, often to a sickening degree – almost as sickening as humans – but, as with humans, this violence is clearly not ultimately self-destructive. For example, when a gang of chimps come across a stray member of a neighbouring group, it’s not uncommon for them to bite, kick and stomp the unfortunate to death. There have even been occasions when one group has slaughtered another wholesale, though one or two might survive by flight – and again, human comparisons spring to mind.

Chimps live in fission-fusion social groups, meaning that they form small, relatively unstable groups within a larger association which may amount to hundreds. Within these groups, large or small, there is a male linear dominance hierarchy, in which the group has one alpha male, who dominates all the others, followed by a beta male, who dominates everyone but the alpha, and so on down the line. Males remain in their birth communities, but females emigrate more or less at adolescence. This means that the young females entering a new group are of lower status and are viewed with suspicion (think of refugees at the US southern border). It also means that the females break kinship ties more than the males. Males also bond through co-operative hunting and boundary patrolling, and in attacking other groups. Again, think of human tribal behaviour. In some chimp communities kinship has been observed to be more important than other coalitions, in others not, but in either case male bonding adds to dominance over females. Co-operative hunting, it should be added, is having serious effects on the hunted, which is usually the red colobus monkey, which is in serious decline in multiple sites where chimps are thriving.

There is always one power that females have in these societies, the power to produce offspring – to maintain the species. Estrus in chimps is marked by visible swelling of the anogenital region, though the first of these swellings occurs before the young female is fertile, and may be a way of attracting males in her new community. Females are able to give birth (parturition) at 13-14 years, but if they aren’t accepted in the community, there’s a danger of infanticide by males, especially as females often use promiscuity to establish themselves. Infanticide tends to reduce the female’s interbirth interval, and favours the genetic line of the male doing the killing (one wonders if they have a way of ‘knowing’ that the murdered child isn’t theirs). Chimp sexual activity is generally promiscuous, though it most often occurs during estrus (maximal tumescence). The female, of course, has to strategise to find the best opportunity for producing healthy and communally favoured offspring – not an easy task, as it leads to secretiveness, suspicion, jealousy and so forth.

Of course, I’m writing this to draw comparisons between chimp societies and early human societies, out of which our modern civilisations developed. Human societies are more complex, naturally, reflecting individual, neurological complexity, and greater, more diverse cultural complexity, but the basis of our patriarchy can certainly be traced in our chimp relatives. Bonobos, however, are quite different, and remarkably so considering their relatively recent divergence from their chimp cousins. Humans have one great advantage over chimps and bonobos, I think. We can consciously teach ourselves to change, to be better adapted to a biosphere we have increasingly recognised is interdependent and precious in its astonishing diversity. And we can learn a lot about this from bonobos.


Margaret MacMillan, The uses and abuses of history, 2010.

Charles Darwin, On the origin of species by means of natural selection, 1859


Written by stewart henderson

January 25, 2021 at 8:50 pm

20: bonobo and human families, early childhood and free will

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ye olde nuclear family, and its enclosures

The bonobo reproduction rate is low, as is ours these days, though for different reasons. Bonobos don’t tend to go all the way, while humans have contraception even for naughty catholics. Muslim scholars seem a little confused about the issue, but are generally more accepting than their catholic counterparts. As to children, humans are rather more possessive about them than bonobos. Bonobo females are largely in charges of the kids, collectively, and paternity is unknown and undisputed. Think about how that would play out in human society, which for millennia has been largely patriarchal, patrilineal and even primogenitive. 

This doesn’t mean male bonobos are hostile to kids, as it’s generally a caring and sharing society, and besides, humouring the kids is a good way of winning favours from their mothers and others. Think of how that would be as a kid – you wouldn’t just be able to run to dad when mum’s mad at you, you’d have any number of adults to run to. You’d also have a range of adults to learn from, to identify with, to consider as role models, as well as to play off against each other. 

Modern, supposedly advanced human society is very different. We live in separate, securitised houses, in nuclear families – ideally mum, dad and 2⅓ kids – with a garden surrounded by a high fence, if we’re ‘lucky’. The grandparents live across town, or in another country, or a nursing home. Visitors are vetted by smartphone. Of course often it’s a single-parent situation, usually mum, and the odd long- or short-lived boyfriend. She works, so the kids spend a lot of time in day-care, meeting other kids and sharing with them one or two adults, who don’t get too close, wary of being accused of funny business. Rarely are these adults male. Still it’s pretty good, lots of toys and games and things to make and do, all in primary colours, but it’s not every day because it’s too expensive, you (the kid) sometimes get shipped around to aunties or friends or assorted baby-sitters, or you get switched to a new centre, with a whole bunch of strangers, or a kid you really like just disappears. But mostly you’re at home with your stupid brother, until school days arrive and you have to wear a uniform, and mum fusses over you and makes you feel nervous and watchful about whether you look different from the other kids, in a good or bad way. And you learn stuff and you like or hate the teacher and you start competing with the other kids and start thinking about how smart or dumb you are. 

Modern human life is pretty regimented. At a certain tender age you go to school where you learn first of all the basics of numeracy and literacy as the first steps toward being civilised. You also learn about rules and regulations, time management and the difference between work and play. Thrown into the school pool of humanity, you’re driven to contemplate and come to terms with variety: fat and skinny, pretty and ugly, noisy and quiet, smart and dumb, friend and enemy and all in between. You learn to make judgments, who to trust, who to avoid, and what to pay attention to. The prefrontal cortex, that amazing human asset, is continuing on its great connective journey, as you negotiate yourself between the formal and the free, between regimentation and independence. 

Yet all the research tells us that most of those judgments you make at school, and which you vaguely remember having made, are actually the product of that growth period before the laying down of memories, distorted or otherwise. And that includes your ability to make effective judgments. 

In the first few years of life, we form more than a million new neural connections every second. In fact, so many that after this surge of connections comes a period of pruning for order and efficiency. But this early period of development requires stimulation, which comes in infinite varieties of ways, including, of course, the bonobo way (and I don’t mean tree-climbing and chomping on insects), the chimp way (watching adult males battling it out), the Tiwi Islander way or the Netherlands royal family way or whatever. And much of this guided stimulation forms our behaviour for the rest of our lives. And the lack of it can reduce our capacities for a lifetime, in spite of subsequent kindness and care, as the notorious case of the Romanian orphans kept in horrendous states of neglect under the Ceauşescu regime has shown, though interestingly, some 20% of those adopted orphans have grown up showing little or no damage. Stimulation can come from within as well as without, and neglect has many variables. 

It stands to reason that we as individuals have little or no control over our development in this crucial period. Which brings me to the issue of free will. Philosophers have traditionally argued for free will on the ‘could have done otherwise’ basis. I could have drunk tea rather than coffee with brekky this morning (though I invariably drink coffee). I could’ve chosen x from the restaurant menu instead of y. So often these trivial examples are given, when it’s screamingly obvious that you don’t get to choose your parents, your genetic inheritance, your early childhood environment, the country or period you were born into, or even the species you were born as (I could’ve snuffed out your brief candle by treading on you in this morning’s walk). Given these restraints on your freedom, restaurant choices surely pale into insignificance. 

But let’s stick with humanity. I won’t go into the neurological underpinnings of the argument against free will (as if I could), but if we treat no free will as a given, then the consequences for humanity, vis-à-vis our handling of crime and punishment, are stark, as  the neurologist and primatologist Robert Sapolsky points out in the penultimate chapter of his book Behave, entitled ‘Biology, the criminal justice system, and (oh, why not?) free will’. This is a vital issue for me, in terms of a more caring and sharing bonoboesque society, so I’ll reserve it for another essay, or two, or more.  


InBrief: The Science of Early Childhood Development

Robert Sapolsky, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst. 2017


Written by stewart henderson

January 6, 2021 at 12:43 pm

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