a bonobo humanity?

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Why are bonobos female dominant? Culture or genetics?

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I was going to entitle this post ‘How did bonobos become female dominant?’, but that assumes that they weren’t always so. To assume makes an ass out of u and me, and I don’t care about u, but I have my pride. And speaking of pride, lions live in those groups (of up to forty, but usually much smaller) and malely dominate, even though the women bring home most of the bacon, chevaline (well, zebra), venison, rattus and the occasional long pork, if they’re lucky.

The point is, we wouldn’t consider this a product of leonine (okay, lion) culture. It’s just what lions – male and female – are genetically programmed to do, just as marmosets, magpies (Australian) and macaroni penguins are programmed to be monogamous (more or less). But considering that separating genetic and cultural evolution in humans is a tricky business, the same would surely go for our closest living relatives. We’re generally convinced that the male dominance in most human history is cultural. I’ve often read the claim that the transition to an agricultural lifestyle in many parts of the world from about 11,000 years ago resulted in a more patriarchal society, with the concept of property, including women, becoming essential to power and dominance. This seems plausible enough, though I would assume that the first claims to property relied primarily on brute strength. Male muscularity is different from that of females, and, more importantly, they’re not hampered by pregnancies and child-rearing. And whereas hunter-gatherers (and it now seems the distinction between these lifestyles is by no means cut and dried) tend to migrate along with food resources, some concept of land ownership, based on kinship over time, clearly developed with an agricultural lifestyle. Again, such a fixed lifestyle would have essentially created the notion of ‘domesticity’, which became associated with the female world. And it seems also have encouraged a degree of polygyny as a sign of male social status. And as we left all this behind, in the WEIRD world so fulsomely described in Joseph Henrich’s book, we’re starting to leave patriarchy behind, though way too slowly for my liking.

So, let’s get back to bonobos. I was struck by an observation I read a while ago in some otherwise forgotten piece on bonobos. Female bonobos are smaller than male bonobos to much the same degree as in chimps and humans, but slightly less so. Considering that the split between bonobos and chimps occurred only between one and two million years ago (and I’d love that margin of error to be narrowed somehow), any reduction in this sexual dimorphism seems significant – and surely genetic. But then genes are modified by environment, and by the behaviour that environment encourages or necessitates. Here’s what I found on a Q&A forum called Worldbuilding:

Bonobos have less dimorphism because they all feed close together and females can almost always protect each other. Male A tries to monopolize female A and gets driven off by female B, C, and D.

Hmmm. There’s something in this, but not quite enough. Why wouldn’t the males bond together to monopolise a particular female? In non-euphemistic human terms this is called pack rape, and it does seem to be confined to humans, though coercive sex, on an individual level, is quite common in other species, and for obvious anatomical reasons it’s always the male who coerces.

This leads to the reasonable conclusion, it seems to me, that for females to have control in the sexual arena – at least in the mammalian world – requires co-operation. And that requires bonding, arguably over and above the bonding associated with ‘girl power’ in WEIRD humans. So here’s how the Max Planck Society explains it:

To clarify why same-sex sexual behavior is so important specifically for female bonobos, we collected behavioral and hormonal data for over a year from all adult members of a habituated bonobo community at the long-term LuiKotale field site in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In addition to our focus on sexual interactions, we identified preferred partners for other social activities such as giving support in conflicts. We also collected urine to measure the hormone oxytocin, which is released in the body in other species after friendly social interactions, including sex, and helps to promote cooperation.

We found that in competitive situations, females preferred to have sex with other females rather than with males. After sex, females often remained closer to each other than did mixed sex pairs, and females had measurable increases in urinary oxytocin following sex with females, but not following sex with males. Among same-sex and opposite-sex pairs, individuals who had more sex also supported each other more often in conflicts, but the majority of these coalitions were formed among females. “It may be that a greater motivation for cooperation among females, mediated physiologically by oxytocin, is the key to understanding how females attain high dominance ranks in bonobo society,” explained co-lead author Martin Surbeck, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and Harvard University.

Now, I know I’ve written about the peptide hormone oxytocin before, somewhere, and suffice to say its role in behaviour and its relation to the general endocrine and neurotransmission systems are extremely complex. Having said that, there will doubtless be strong similarities for its role in humans and in bonobos. And, reflecting on the above quote, what came first, the oxytocin release, or the bonding? Should we encourage more oxytocin doses, or more female-female sex? Doing both sounds like a fine idea.

To tell the truth, I find the willingness to see bonobos as any kind of female model somewhat lacking. They’re ‘jokingly’ referred to as the scandalous primate, and their revolutionary nature is underplayed. Yet their relatively comfortable, largely frugivorous lifestyle in the southern Congo region, where their only real threat is humanity, reflects in miniature the comforts of the WEIRD world, with its hazards of overspending at the supermarket, lazing too long at the beach, or pokies, cocktail bars and ‘Lust-Skin Lounges’ for the true thrill-seekers.

Of course, we got to our ascendant position today through the explorations, calculations and inventions produced by our brains, and the super-brains of our cities, corporations and universities. What can we learn from a bunch of gangly, hairy mutual masturbators dangling about in the Congolese rainforest? Well, we brains and super-brains can still learn a bit more about sharing and caring – as any study of our own history can tell us – and we can certainly learn to stop being so dumb and fucked-up about sexuality, gender and power. Learning lessons from bonobos doesn’t mean getting hairier and improving our brachiation skills, but, well, eating less meat would be a start, given what we know about the environmental damage our current diet is causing. And that’s just one of many lessons we can learn. For me, of course, the most important lesson is the role played by females. How ridiculously long did it take for us – I mean we male humans who have been in control of almost all human societies since those societies came into being – to recognise and admit that females are our equal in every intellectual sphere? This is still unacknowledged in some parts. And although we call this the WEIRD world, the Industrial part of that acronym has lost its machismo essence, a loss Susan Faludi has sensitively analysed in her book Stiffed: the betrayal of the modern man though I think ‘betrayal’ is the wrong word. After all, men were never promised or guaranteed to be breadwinners and heads of households, they took or were given the role through social evolution, and it’s being taken from them, gradually, through the same process.

Finally, getting back to the question in the title, the answer, for Pan paniscus as surely as for Homo sapiens, is culture, which can affect gene expression (epigenetics), which can ultimately affect genetics. I suspect that the slight diminution in the sexual dimorphism between male and female bonobos, over a relatively short period of time, evolutionarily speaking, might, if they’re left to their own devices (which is unlikely, frankly), lead to a size reversal and a world of male sexual servitude. Vive les bonobos, I’d like to be one, for the next few million years!

References

https://worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/245757/how-could-evolution-favour-decreased-sexual-dimorphism-in-a-humanoid-species#:~:text=Bonobos%20have%20less%20dimorphism%20because,B%2C%20C%2C%20and%20D.

https://phys.org/news/2019-09-insights-same-sex-sexual-interactions-important.html#:~:text=%22It%20may%20be%20that%20a,for%20Evolutionary%20Anthropology%20and%20Harvard

Joseph Henrich, The WEIRDest people in the world, 2021

Susan Faludi, Stiffed, 1999

Written by stewart henderson

October 18, 2023 at 4:11 pm

more on macho thuggery and a world turned upside-down

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WPL – female political leaders past and present

 

Jacinta: So here’s the thing – after the horrible cannon-fodder event of 1914-18 that became known as the Great War, and subsequently WW1, the League of Nations came into being, to try to ensure that no futher war of such magnitude, such destruction, would occur. It would be a forum for the negotiation of grievances, a move towards a more civilised behaviour between nations.

Canto: Yes there must’ve been a sense of urgency as the death toll and the suffering came to light. But then it all happened again – so it failed?

Jacinta: Well of course I’m talking about this as the world watches a piece of obvious butchery in Ukraine, over a hundred years after that ‘war to end all wars’. The League of Nations, the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, these institutions have been, IMHO, vitally important 20th century developments, but they haven’t effectively prevented wars and invasions in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and so on. And war is hell, especially for those who’ve made the mistake of being born in those fought-over lands.

Canto: Yes, the ICC is massively hamstrung by the fact that the most militarily powerful countries, the USA, Russia and China, won’t join it, for the obvious reason that they don’t want to be held accountable. What’s the point of being massively powerful if you don’t get to throw your weight around with impunity?

Jacinta: Yes, and to be bonoboesque about it, none of those countries have come close to having female leadership in recent times. Okay, the USA has at last celebrated it first Vice-President, but it’s not really an elected position. There have been 45 male US Presidents, and zero female Presidents so far. Not bad for a group that represents just under half the population. China hasn’t had a woman on top since the much under-rated Empress Dowager Cixi died in 1908. The CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee, a kind of divinely elected inner Cabinet, which has been operational, more or less, since the 1950s, has had fifty-four members, of which zero have been women.

Canto: Wow – not even a female impersonator? But then, during the one child policy, something miraculous happened. Almost all the kids born turned out to be male. You can hardly blame the CCP for that.

Jacinta: And as for Putinland’s mighty ruler, he’s an unabashed misogynist and he plans to rule his namesake for the next 200 years or so, so the chances of any of those countries allowing themselves to be accountable to the rest of humanity are close to zero for the foreseeable.

Canto: Yes, and it’s funny how the nations most likely to be naughty to the tunes of their national anthems are the ones least willing to defend themselves in open court. I’ve found that there are some other interesting countries that aren’t interested in the ICC – Israel, Libya, Iraq – nations with a very spotty recent history.

Jacinta: And nothing much in the way of female leadership. Israel did have Golda Meir, described in Encyclopedia Brittanica as the country’s first female Prime Minister, as if there were others.

Canto: And then there are nations where women are barely allowed to hold down a job never mind boss others around. So what is to be done?

Jacinta: Well, all we can do is try to lay down foundations. And there’s a groundswell of interest in women’s empowerment, it’s been happening for decades. When we compare women’s wages with those of men, and grumble about a gap that never seems to narrow, we need to remember that it wasn’t so long ago, in the long arc of human history, that women weren’t considered a part of the paid work-force at all. Now they own businesses, run science labs and occasionally help to govern nations. And I should mention that here in little old South Australia – where we’ve never had a female Premier, our newly elected Labor Premier Peter Malinauskas celebrated his victory with a press chit-chat flanked by five new female MPs as well as Deputy Premier Susan Close. A sixth new female Labor candidate looks set to win her seat.

Canto: So how do we promote the empowerment of women in Australia, before taking over the world?

Jacinta: Well the government occasionally brings out policy documents, such as the ‘Gender equality and women’s empowerment strategy’, published by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) in early 2016. It recognises that ‘nowhere in the world have women and men achieved equality’, and points out, in its global analysis, that GDPs would rise everywhere if such equality could be realised, or approached. It points out the obvious benefits of female education, for women, their children and the community, and the greater stability and peace that comes with female empowerment (no mention of bonobos however). As was pointed out in the military document I read some months ago, a greater female presence in the military leads to better peace-keeping. This DFAT document repeats the point:

Greater gender equality contributes to stability and peace. Women are often instrumental in brokering ceasefires in conflict situations, and peacekeeping operations involving women as soldiers, police and civilian personnel are more effective. Greater equality can prevent disputes escalating to armed conflict.

Canto: That must be why Putin and his Patriarch aren’t into gender equality so much. And just to change the subject, I’ve heard that, since their invasion isn’t going so well – possibly because the billions spent on the military have been largely siphoned off by the luxury yacht-loving kleptocrats in his inner circle – they’re now trying to pretend that they’ve been largely successful in their main aim, which is to gain complete control of the Donbas and Crimean regions, and this is really all they wanted in the first place, etc etc.

Jacinta: Well, I’ll believe that when I hear something from Putin himself, but that’s highly unlikely. They’re basically fucked, though Putin will never admit it. Hoist by his own macho petard, I’d say. Anyway, this document from six years ago talks the talk convincingly enough, and with a likely change of Federal government in the next few months, the talk will continue. It promotes a three-pronged approach to its aid, trade and foreign relations programs – 1) Enhancing women’s voice in decision-making, leadership and peace-building. 2) Promoting women’s economic empowerment. 3) Ending violence against women and girls. Which all sounds great, though all this needs to start at home. Also the document argues that ‘at least 80 per cent of investments [presumably by DFAT], regardless of their objectives, should effectively address gender equality issues in their implementation’. What about the other 20 per cent? Where did the 80 per cent come from?

Canto: Well, 80%, 90%, 60%, it’s all just talk, who’s going to be doing the measurements? Surely the important thing is that they’re pushing for a much better situation than pertains at the moment. And meanwhile on the world stage there’s an organisation, probably quite informal, called Women Political Leaders (WPL), consisting of former and some current national Prime Ministers and such, as well as heads of the European Commission, high-ups at the UN and so forth, all promoting the benefits of female leadership, benefits we’ve outlined so many times. They held a major forum last July, which seems to have garnered little attention.

Jacinta: I’m hoping that the machismo antics of Putin, Xi Jinping and others, which of course are garnering plenty of attention, might have more effect on our appreciation of female leadership than these forums, which of course are a pointer to the future. Unfortunately, our attention will always be more drawn to  the thuggery of these types than to the speeches and achievements of intelligent women. Violence, destruction and suffering are riveting because they bring to mind our own vulnerability, and often our own sheer good luck at not finding ourselves in the thick of it. And I sometimes wonder whether, if we ever achieve something like a bonobo world, many lifetimes into the future, our victory over the male hellholes of the world will render us complacent and soft…

Canto: Haha, little likelihood of that – after all, even the bonobos males have to be kept in check by what Bjork calls ‘an army of me’. So I suspect bonobos aren’t as complacent as they might look.

Jacinta: Yes, happy loving relations often need a lot of work. Hostile relations tend to come naturally – at least so it seems from within our patriarchal culture. So, nothing for it but to keep working for a world turned upside-down.

 

Written by stewart henderson

March 29, 2022 at 4:04 pm