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Archive for the ‘dolphins’ Category

21 – dolphins, bonobos, sex and pleasure

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bonobos at Jacksonville zoo

I enjoyed a little boat trip off the north-east coast of Kangaroo Island recently. The owner, our guide, bounced us up and down the shoreline east of Christmas Cove to view caves in the limestone cliffs, seabirds such as wedge-tailed eagles on the cliff-tops, and above all to search for a pod of dolphins known to be using the area as a daytime resting-place.

After a few bouts of bouncing eastward and westward we were becoming skeptical, though by no means annoyed. A year before, the island, Australia’s third largest after Tasmania and Melville Island, had been ravaged by bushfires, devastating vegetation and wildlife, and seriously damaging the island’s fragile economy, not to say ecology, and we were happy to make our tiny contribution without great expectations of sighting fabulous beasties. 

So we were delighted, on heading eastward again, to spot a few fins bobbing and dipping in the water ahead. Slowing toward them, we were told there were about 25 dolphins in this pod (the term was first used by whalers in the early nineteenth century, for reasons unknown). I soon gave up trying to count them as identical-looking fins appeared and disappeared and vaguely discerned bodies twisted and turned just below the surface. They seemed to form pairs now and then, breaking the surface sleekly and synchronously in elegant arcs. Dolphins, I learned, spend their days lolling about near the shore in these pods after a night of hunting out at sea. They seemed aware but unconcerned about our presence, and at one time the whole group disappeared then reappeared on the other side of our boat, bobbing and slow-twirling as before. 

I was struck by a remark by our guide that dolphins are one of the few mammals that mate for fun or pleasure. Of course I made an immediate connection with bonobos, but then I wondered, what does the verb, to mate, exactly mean? We humans never describe ourselves as mating, that’s for the birds, etc. We fuck, screw, bonk, shag, hump and bone, we more coyly sleep together, and more romantically make love (not allowed for other species), but we’re way above mating.

‘Mating’ brings up two internet definitions, the action of animals coming together to breed, and copulation. So dolphins, and bonobos and humans, often come together to breed – but actually not to breed. As for copulation, that’s rarely used for humans, just as fornication is rarely used for non-humans. The latter is, of course, a term of mostly religious disapproval, and non-humans are too lowly to be worthy of moral judgment. 

Of course we do apply mating to humans with a pinch of irony, as in the mating game, and this blurs the line between humans and others, but not enough for me. The point is that dolphins and bonobos use sex, which may not be the full rumpy-pumpy (dolphins don’t even have rumps to speak of), to bond with each other, to ease tension, to have fun, as our guide said. But then, don’t all species have sex purely for pleasure, or at least because driven to do so, by sensation? Do cats, dogs, birds and flies have sex with the intention of reproducing? I don’t think so. 

Human sex is pleasurable, so I’ve heard, and I expect bonobo sex is too. Fly sex probably not, or so I thought, but I’m probably wrong. Researchers have found that male fruit flies enjoy ejaculating, and tend to consume alcohol when denied sex. I know exactly how they feel. Anyway, fruit flies have long been favourites for biological research, and more recently they’ve found that ‘a protein present in the ejaculate of male fruit flies activates long-term memory formation in the brains of their female partners’. It rather makes me wonder what effect this kind of research has on the researchers themselves, but I’m sure it’s all for the best. 

One thing is certain, cats and dogs, and I’ve had a few, feel pleasure. Cats are appallingly sensual, and I’ve probably had more sexual advances from dogs than from humans, though whether they involved pleasure I can’t be sure. Generally our understanding of non-human sex has expanded in recent decades, as our sense of our specialness in everything has receded. It’s also true that we’ve tended to look at other species with a scientific instrumentalism, that’s to say from the viewpoint of evolution, breeding, genetics and other forms of categorisation, rather from an emotional or sensory viewpoint.

When I was very young I read a book by Ernest Thompson Seton called The biography of a grizzly. This story of Wahb, a male grizzly whose family was wiped out by hunters, and who survived to become the most powerful bear in the region, before inevitable decline and death, had an unforgettable emotional impact. I’m glad I read it though, as, sentimentalised though it might’ve been, it inoculated me against the scientific tendency, now changing, to see any animal as an it, rather than he or she or dad or mum or brother or sister. So this idea of putting oneself in the paws of a grizzly or the feet of a bonobo has long been perfectly legitimate to me. 

In 2014 Jason Goldman wrote an article entitled Do animals have sex for pleasure?, in which he cited many instances of other species – bonobos of course heading the list – engaging in oral and penetrative sex ‘out of season’, when pregnancy is precluded. They include capuchin monkeys, macaques, spotted hyenas, bears, lions and fruit bats. It stands to reason that the physiological, whole-of body pleasure we derive from sex is shared by other species, and is indulged by them, and this includes what we call homosex, and masturbation. Australia’s premier science magazine, Cosmos, claimed a few years ago that some 6000 species (or was it 600?) have been observed engaging in homosexual activity, which does sound funny when talking about what we would habitually call lower life forms. 

All of these findings have had the effect, and perhaps the intention, of loosening our uptight attitudes toward sex, as well as upending our notions of human specialness. But the behaviour of bonobos, who at times look strikingly like us, is more immediately impactful than anything fruit flies or fruit bats might do. Just the other day I watched a video of bonobos in Jacksonville zoo, Florida. Two of them were lying on the ground close together, and kissing each other, on the lips, again and again. Were they male? female? one of each? Who knows, it was so beautiful to watch.  


Ernest Thompson Seton, The biography of a grizzly, 1900.

Bonobos at Jacksonville Zoo (video)


Written by stewart henderson

January 10, 2021 at 1:31 pm

a bonobo world, and other impossibilities 14

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graph showing the rising number of PhDs in neuroscience compared to other sciences

is it all about sex? a few thoughts on sex and behaviour

When I was young there were always a lot of books around, fortunately. My mother was a psych nurse who went on to be a teacher of nursing, so psychology textbooks were plentiful, and I learned with some fascination early on about the id, the ego and the superego. But my greatest excitement was reserved for two other Freudian terms, sublimation and polymorphous perversity. They allowed me to think of sex in a kind of superior way. 

Sublimation refers to the process of transformation from a solid to a gas, without the intermediate step of melting into a liquid. You can observe it simply by opening your freezer door, especially if you have an old-style freezer caked with ice. But Freud’s use of the word was much hotter, to my teenage self. To Freud, there were two driving instincts, eros, the sex drive, and thanatos, the death drive. That’s enough about thanatos. Freud proposed these two opposing drives in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and other essays, but I probably got them from pamphlets floating around the house, summarising Freud’s ideas in a few paragraphs. As I understood it, eros was life-affirmative, but it needed to be harnessed, reigned in, sublimated to a more general, civilising and creative (rather than procreative) force. So it was all just sex diverted to science, technology, empire-building and the like. Sounded perfectly cromulent to me, even before that word was invented. So everything was polymorphously perverse; church spires, slippery-dips, kindergartens and business schools, they all manifested the perversity of our drive, in an infinitude of stop-thinking-about-sex-but-do-this-instead ways. Having discovered the secret of civilisation thanks to Meister Sigmund, I took great secret pleasure in upending said civilisation by masturbating like there was no tomorrow. 

I realise now of course that sublimation isn’t always about channelling out the sexual impulse, it’s about any equally unacceptable impulse, such as murderous rage. But being me I wanted to keep the sex, and stuff all the civilisation. Or couldn’t we somehow keep both sex and civilisation, and dispense with the murderous rage? 

Many anthropologists would agree that bonobos have a culture, but none would say they have a civilisation. So what exactly is the difference, and does civilisation require the degree of sexual repression that we generally suffer from? Though there are the odd erotomanic subcultures, in no established nation is it acceptable, or legal, to walk about naked, let alone have sex, in public. It’s generally called indecent exposure. A loincloth, and some extra bits of cloth for females, might protect you legally if not socially, but what precisely is so upsetting, currently, about those parts we’re obliged to hide, and will we ever socially evolve out of this condition?

Freud believed we were born polymorphously perverse, little libido capsules, and some of his observations – such that we’re all born bisexual, seemed obvious to me from the get-go. However, Freud knew nothing about bonobos, who were barely known to humanity at the time of his death. His theories of masculinity might have benefitted from such knowledge, and in fact the incredibly rapid pace of our neurological knowledge from the beginning of the 21st century – as the neurologist and primatologist Robert Sapolsky points out in his monumental book Behave – has wrought havoc with psychoanalytic and other theories that seek to understand human behaviour without attending to their detailed neurological underpinnings. The shaping of masculinity and femininity by culture has been a problem that psychologists, feminists and all other interested parties have long wrestled with. Which culture, after all? And are there differences beyond culture? Can culture be separated from biology?

I don’t think so. Our brains function the way they do because of the environment in which they were nurtured since conception – every environment different of course. And there’s also evolution – what might be called pre-conceptual, or historical, or prehistorical influences. Researchers have often tried to pinpoint essential differences between the male and female brain in humans. They’re far less concerned to pinpoint such differences between male and female cats, dogs or mice, presumably because their overall catty, doggy and mousey natures tend to overwhelm minor gender differences. Recent research has found statistical differences only, rather than categorical differences between male and female brains. In other words, female brains don’t have a vagina and male ones don’t have a penis. Even if you’ve devoted a lifetime to neurological research, studying the brain in all its white-and grey detail, you wouldn’t be able to state categorically that the warm, disembodied human brain placed in your hands to somehow keep alive and probe its electrochemical circuitry and its hormonal flow, belonged to a male or a female. Researchers who want to find key differences between Venus and Mars will find them, but the differences among female brains are greater than those that separate them from male brains. 

And yet, statistics are important. Statistically speaking, males are more violent than females, regardless of nation, culture or time period (going back to the first days of statistical data). It seems to have to do with hormones, and group behavior. Young males often join gangs – bikie gangs, street gangs, crime gangs, ethnic gangs, white supremacist gangs, nogoodnik gangs, whatever. Females, not so much. The largest cause of violent death and injury in long-peaceful countries such as Australia is a young male aged 15-24 or so behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. This is about risky and show-offy behaviour – they kill and injure themselves as much as others. Such behaviour is seen too in male chimps, in young bull elephants during musth, and in male dolphins – all very smart and social animals. Does all this relate to sex? Apparently, in more or less roundabout ways. For chimps it’s not so roundabout. It’s called the sexual coercion hypothesis, for which much evidence has been collected from various East African field sites:

Males who directed aggression at certain females mated more often with those females than did other males. Moreover, these aggressive males were actively solicited for mating by those females at the time of peak fertility. Critically, aggression over the long term had a greater effect than violence in the immediate context of mating. 

This aggressive disposition apparently leads directly to reproductive success. So male domestic violence isn’t all bad?

Elephants in musth – which literally means ‘drunk’ – have very highly elevated testosterone levels, but how this links to aggression is unclear. Sapolsky has much to say about cause-correlation between testosterone -and androgens generally – and aggression in humans, which is relevant here. Social learning appears to play an important role in male aggression, which raises testosterone levels, and so we have a chcken-and-egg issue. As to elephants, the aggression they display during musth makes close scientific analysis a bit problematic, but it’s known that the secretion of temporin from the temporal glands in this period, and the accompanying swelling of those glands, causes irritation, which can be acute in some cases. This extreme irritation may cause aggressive behaviour, as when Dad kicks the cat after Mum has berated him for the previous two hours. Interestingly, aggressiveness, sometimes murderous, in young bull elephants, most often happens in the absence of older males. Their presence has a tempering effect. In any case, the violence displayed during musth, which is the male reproductive period, seems more of a side-effect than a ‘turn-on’ for females. Older males learn to use this period effectively, becoming more energetic in moving around and increasing territory in search of females, and preserving their energy during the warmer, non-musth months. 

Dolphins are not generally the fun-loving joyful creatures of contemporary myth, and male dolphins often gang up on females and rape them, to use a term humans like to reserve for themselves. I could go on, but the general point is that we, as humans, might want to learn how not to behave as well as how to behave from other species, especially those most like us – not just in their closeness genetically, but in their smarts, and in their negative or positive treatment of others, of their own and other species. 


R Sapolsky, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst. Bodley Head 2017

Written by stewart henderson

November 27, 2020 at 12:44 pm