a bonobo humanity?

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

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bonobos, chimps, theory of mind, and sex

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bonobo mother and child

Jacinta: So how is the bonobo influence faring these days – in Afghanistan, Iran, Trumpistan, Pakistan, China, Russia, Israel and Burma, to name a few…?

Canto: Okay, enough goat-getting. I’m still fascinated by how bonobos – more genetically similar to chimps, of course, than to humans – came to be so different. It’s not genetics, so what is it? It can’t just be diet, or habitat. And, my feeling is, if you know how something works, you can build it yourself. Like, if you know how beehives work you can build your own beehive, which we’ve done.

Jacinta: Not quite the same as building a new social system methinks. Though they have tried, haven’t they? ‘Let’s go to the Americas and build a Paraiso en el Nuevo Mundo‘…But isn’t it already inhabited?’ ‘Yeah, we might need a bit of rubbish-clearing to start with’.

Canto: You’d think that our discovery of the bonobo lifestyle, really only a few decades ago, its feminism, its relative pacifism, its great community spirit, not to mention the sex, would be of interest to more than just a few primatologists, especially given the world of warfare, rapine and religious numbskullduggery that so many of us are still trapped within – it makes me scream with frustration.

Jacinta: It seems that the timber of humanity is more crooked than that of bonobos. I reckon we took a really wrong turn a few million years ago, so now we’re lost in the patriarchal jungle and we’ll never find our way back.

Canto: But bonobos are showing us the way don’t you see? And if humans didn’t make life so difficult for them, and their habitat wasn’t so fouled and fenced in by human depredations, they’d be so numerous, such a dominant force in the landscape, they’d put us to shame.

Jacinta: Haha we’re a pretty shameless species I’m afraid. Anyway, aren’t bonobos the anomalous ones? Chimps vastly outnumber them, despite the same human depredations. It be Nature, and what do please Evolution. If they hadn’t been separated into two species by the formation of the Congo River, they’d still be one species, and patriarchal, I’m betting.

Canto: Wow, who’s side are you on? Whether bonobos’ ancestors were patriarchal or not is beside the point to me. The point is, they’re matriarchal now, who cares when it started. And they’re happy, and successful. And we humans want to be happy, or happier, and more successful. So we might learn from bonobos about being less aggressive, less cruel, less exploitative, less competitive, and more caring, more playful, more communal, more uninhibited…

Jacinta: Okay, okay, I get it. But I’m wondering about that aggression, or at least that competitiveness. Hasn’t it been to our advantage as a species? The space race, the battles between competing scientific theories, between political ideologies and the like, haven’t they sharpened the collective human mind? Aren’t bonobos a bit intellectually lazy? I’ve read somewhere that chimps are more consistent toolmakers than bonobos. Or would you rather we lived in some timeless hippy-bonobo nirvana?

Canto: Okay, let’s look at the evidence, or what we have of it. Michael Tomasello et al published a research study in the journal PloS One in 2010, entitled ‘Differences in the Cognitive Skills of Bonobos and Chimpanzees’. Here’s the whole abstract from it:

While bonobos and chimpanzees are both genetically and behaviorally very similar, they also differ in significant ways. Bonobos are more cautious and socially tolerant while chimpanzees are more dependent on extractive foraging, which requires tools. The similarities suggest the two species should be cognitively similar while the behavioral differences predict where the two species should differ cognitively. We compared both species on a wide range of cognitive problems testing their understanding of the physical and social world. Bonobos were more skilled at solving tasks related to theory of mind or an understanding of social causality, while chimpanzees were more skilled at tasks requiring the use of tools and an understanding of physical causality. These species differences support the role of ecological and socio-ecological pressures in shaping cognitive skills over relatively short periods of evolutionary time.

Jacinta: Yeah, that is a bit abstract. WTF is the difference between social causality and physical causality?
Canto: Well, it hints of course as to why chimps might be less interested in tool-making, and more interested in how to effectively share in the relative abundance of their habitat – a habitat they had full control of, I suspect, before a species called H sapiens started fucking it up. Says little about intelligence, however defined. Interestingly, the study involved far more chimps (106) than bonobos (34), and fewer female bonobos (13) than males – a bit disappointing, given that female bonobos have become dominant for some reason, but clearly not because of physical strength!
Jacinta: Well, reading further into the article, they did do some experiments in which they evened out the numbers, and I was intrigued by the claim that bonobos were more ‘timid’ than chimps:
Mirroring individual differences observed in theory of mind development in human children, the more cautious and socially tolerant bonobos outperformed chimpanzees on the theory of mind scale. Meanwhile, the prolific tool-using chimpanzee, whose survival is more dependent on extractive foraging, outperformed bonobos in the tool-use and causality scale.
Canto: Yes, apparently human children of the more reflective and less, dare I say, ‘out there’ type, have been found to be better at ‘theory of mind’ tasks. Tasks involving ‘walking in others’ shoes’, might I say. And isn’t that what we need right now? And I’m willing to bet all my worldly goods, that human females outperform males in those tasks.
Jacinta: This has been a contentious issue for some time, and it’s complicated, but yes, it seems that females do better at ToM, as they call it.
This pattern can potentially be interpreted as suggesting that bonobos are more skilled at solving problems requiring an understanding of social causality, while chimpanzees are more skilled at solving problems relating to physical causality. In contrast, the two species did not differ in the scales measuring their understanding of problems related to spatial comprehension, discriminating quantities, using and comprehending communicative signals and learning from others via a social demonstration. This pattern of findings provides support for the hypothesis that socio-ecological pressures play an important role in shaping the cognitive differences observed between these species.
Long-term observations of wild chimpanzees have suggested that female chimpanzees acquire more proficient tool-using techniques faster than males, and other studies show a similar pattern in captive bonobos. Therefore, it may be that socio-ecological pressures play a more limited role in producing cognitive differences based on sex in these species, but it also suggests that female Panins pay closer attention to others which allows them to learn and solve social problems more quickly and skillfully than males (while both sexes perform similarly in physical cognition tasks).
Canto: That’s intriguing, but it still doesn’t come very close to helping us understand how bonobo females dominate. I’m still waiting for a good hypothesis to explain this apparent turn-around. I’d like to think that there’s a clue in their sexual activities, but since it all seems to be about mutual masturbation…
Jacinta: But maybe it’s because the females are more proficient masturbators. After all, human females are more easily able to achieve orgasm than males, and that’s likely true also for bonobos, and in a social system in which there’s no sexual prudery (and humans have barely any such systems), that achievement might be politically empowering.
Canto: Yes, and this Theory of Mind stuff suggests that bonobos would likely get off on each others’ excitement, the females especially. Creating greater closeness and empathy. But then, there’s masturbatory sex, but also more ‘serious’ sex, directed at producing offspring. I’ve read that dominant female bonobos seek to manipulate things so that there own male offspring have sex, in this procreative sense, with the ‘right’ females.
Jacinta: Yes, that does sound weird. Could bonobos possibly know the connection between sex and pregnancy? Seems unlikely.
Canto: That’s something to look into next time….

Written by stewart henderson

November 8, 2023 at 10:01 pm