a bonobo humanity?

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

Archive for the ‘polygyny’ Category

the big issue: monogamy, polygyny and bonoboism

leave a comment »

I think it’s time we moved in together, raised a family of our own you and me. That’s the way I’ve always heard it should be…

Jacob Brackman/Carly Simon

And if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

When I was a young boy, my Mama said to me, ‘There’s only one girl in the world for you, and she probably lives in Tahiti’

Reckless Eric

glory days

Just the other day, a young woman very close to me was in a quandary about her boyfriend – though ‘quandary’ is too mild a word. She was very upset about what might be a permanent break-up. As part of their intimate chit-chat, he responded, presumably to her love declaration, with this remark: ‘I love you, but I’m not in love with you’.

Of course this response can hardly cover the whole nature of their relationship, but the fact that it was seen as less than satisfactory, indeed jeopardising the relationship’s future, has given me much food for thought – or rather, it has brought to mind issues that have obsessed me for a lifetime, an obsession that helps to explain my excitement at discovering, nearly four decades ago, bonobo culture.

I’m referring here to monogamy, and romantic love, modes of life and feeling that are essentially foreign to my favourite, and very loving, primate cousins.

It’s fascinatingly coincidental that, just as I found myself to be a sounding-board for my young friend, whom I dearly love, I’ve been reading Joseph Henrich’s The Weirdest people in the world: how the West became psychologically peculiar and particularly prosperous, which deals with the cultural processes that broke down kinship connections and marriages (sororate and levirate), including polygynous marriages for elite males, in different global regions. This dissolution of long-standing kinship traditions was effected, not necessarily deliberately, through the edicts of the Church (Catholic) over many centuries in Western Europe, and was replaced by connections, including marriages, based on individual choice, shared interests and psychological compatibility. Other influences in other regions, such as China, had similar kinship-dissolving effects, though intensities have differed.

All of these transformations and modifications, though, have been within male-dominated societies. And, in the history we know most about, from the beginnings of agricultural society, there have been precious few female-dominated ones. And monogamy has been the norm, even if hedged around by clan and kinship expectations. Henrich puts it this way, while incidentally making perhaps the only reference to bonobos in his book:

From among our closest evolutionary relatives – apes and monkeys – guess how many species both live in large groups like Homo sapiens and have only monogamous pair bonding?

That’s right, zero. No group-living primates have the non-cultural equivalent of monogamous marriage. Based on the sex lives of our two closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, the ancestor we share with these apes was probably highly promiscuous and likely didn’t form pair bonds at all, let alone enduring, monogamous pair bonds. Nevertheless, since we diverged from our ape cousins, our species has evolved a specialised psychological suite – our pair-bonding psychology – that can foster strong emotional bonds between mates that remain stable for long enough to encourage men to invest in their mate’s children. This pair bonding psychology provides the innate anchor for marital institutions. However the nature of this anchor biases marital institutions toward polygynous pair bonding. In contrast, our innate mating psychology doesn’t usually favour widespread polyandrous mean marriage – that’s one wife with multiple husbands – although there are good evolutionary reasons to expect this to pop up at low frequencies in societies lacking prohibitions against it.

J Henrich, The Weirdest people in the world, pp 258-9

Now, I’m a wee bit miffed here that bonobos etc are described as ‘non-cultural’, though of course they don’t have marriage, or language, or religion, quite. But the emergence of patriarchy, or possibly its intensifying as we trace our ancestry back to the CHLCA (chimp-human last common ancestor) is still something of a mystery. Henrich’s analysis really only takes us back several millennia, at the very most. Bonobos are, in a sense, hunter-gatherers, and their diet has never included large game, so the relatively rare hunting events would’ve involved speed and dexterity more than brute strength. Bonobo matriarchy, if that’s what it is, appears to be an outcome of the female-female bonding that arguably comes more naturally to human females than to males.

The concept of property is key here. Think of the commandment – don’t covet your neighbour’s wife, or any other property belonging to him. Property emerged from the depths of time as very much a male thing – and so, polygyny as a status symbol. Henrich has an argument as to why polyandry never became much of a thing:

Our ‘polygyny bias’ arises in part from fundamental asymmetries in human reproductive biology. Over our evolutionary history, the more mates a man had, the greater his reproduction, or what biologists call his ‘fitness’. By contrast, for women, simply having more mates didn’t directly translate into greater reproduction or higher fitness. This is because, unlike men, women necessarily had to carry their own foetuses, nurse their own infants, and care for their toddlers. Given the immense input needed to rear human children compared to other mammals, an aspiring human mother required help, protection, and resources like food, clothing, shelter, and cultural know-how. One way to obtain some of this help was to form a pair bond with the most capable, resource full, and highest status man she could find by making clear to him that her babies would be his babies. The greater his paternal confidence, the more willing he was to invest time, effort, and energy in providing for her and her children. Unlike his wife, however, our new husband could ‘run in parallel’ by forming additional pair-bonds with other women. While his new wife was pregnant or nursing, he could be ‘working’ on conceiving another child with his second or third wife (and so on, with additional wives).

J Henrich, The Weirdest people in the world, p 259

Henrich goes on to argue for the unsustainability of polygyny due to the lack of wives or breeding partners for low-status males in an increasingly hierarchical social system, but I should note here that bonobos have managed to develop a female-dominant culture despite all the issues of mothering, or most of the issues, faced by humans. Of course, they don’t have to worry about clothing, and shelter is less of a problem. ‘Cultural know-how’ is of course matched to species complexity – how to survive and thrive in their particular social world. In a talk given at Harvard, the linguist Daniel Everett defined culture thus (quoting from his own 2016 formulation):

Culture is an abstract network shaping and connecting social roles, hierarchically structured knowledge domains, and ranked values. Culture is only found in the bodies (the brain is part of the body) and behaviour of its members.

He also states in his talk that culture is always changing, and of course he’s talking about human culture. And this raises again the question of bonobo (or cetacean, or corvid) ‘culture’. We see our culture changing generationally – that’s to say, before or very eyes – but only a few centuries ago, as David Deutsch points out in The beginning of infinity, human culture, even in the WEIRD world, was much more static, and, although we don’t have clear evidence, it seems that Australian indigenous culture maintained itself largely unchanged for tens of millennia.

So, the way culture works depends a lot on context, and rapidity of change has much to do with interaction between and across cultures, due not just to immigration but, perhaps more importantly, to the rapid technological connections across the globe that have occurred since the middle of the 20th century,

Let me give you some of my personal story as an example. In the mid-sixties, as a kid of around ten, I was on a backyard swing listening to the radio blasting out, one after another, the five or so songs, all by the Beatles, that were topping the charts, in Australia and the other side of the world, at the time. I was thinking how vital and exciting those songs seemed to me in comparison to the hymns we were asked to sing at Sunday School. Over the next few years, the Beatles exchanged their matching suits and mop haircuts for long, wild hair, colourful eastern silks, beads and ‘love, man’. The ‘hippie generation’ seemed to explode into life. Free love and flower power, vaguely defined, were being spruiked everywhere, and songs referencing revolution – by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Thunderclap Newman, Barry McGuire and others – all gave the impression of a world turning upside-down. Caught up in the zeitgeist, I let my hair grow as long as it could, wore my older sister’s cast-off blouses and jackets, became a massive Bowie fan and reflected obsessively on gender-bending, marriage and monogamy.

The marriage and monogamy issues exercised me most, as my parents, it seemed, had trapped themselves in a loveless marriage which only came to an end shortly after I left home at eighteen. And because my mother was very much the head of our household, and because my sister was as strong-willed as my mother, feminism was also a major theme. We lived in a household full of books, with a library just down the road, so I was able to escape into a less fraught intellectual world. One book that greatly exercised me was Bruno Bettelheim’s The Children of the Dream, about the Jewish kibbutz system. While I was too young to understand much of the analysis, the very fact that there was a radical alternative to my form of upbringing hugely exercised me. I imagined the kibbutz system to be something like bonoboism long before I’d ever heard of those treasured apes.

Also, because our family had moved to Australia from Scotland when I was five, we’d pretty well dispensed with broader kinship connections, making us particularly WEIRD. It was all about ‘elective affinities’, as Goethe put it, and in fact I read his book of that title as a young person, probably due to the WEIRD title, though I found the content rather baffling. I was trying to tease out the differences between sexual attraction, love, and affinity, if they existed. I recall reading, I think in Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, of this made-up love obsession which was enough to drive us mad. I had felt it myself of course. How could I feel so intensely about this girl I barely knew? How could a way of walking, a flicker of hands, make me feel that some force had reached into my heart and squeezed it, making me stagger and look round to see if anyone had noticed? And then later I learned of hormones – phenylethylamine and cortisol running wild, triggering the release of dopamine and norepinephrine, toxins of hope and their antidotes – all the result of unbidden thought, or something like…

Then of course, the world must be peopled, and we’ve done an all too brilliant job at that. As Henrich’s research indicates, with the agricultural revolution more or less complete in many parts of the human world around 8,000 years ago, property and its associated prestige led to an increasingly hierarchical, and patriarchal society – mostly monogamous, but then nothing displays male power more than possession of a bevy of the brightest and most beautiful as breeding partners. It’s worth noting just how extreme this ‘sexual prestige’ system became in some parts of the world. Here’s Henrich again:

In the South Pacific at the time of European contact, Tongan chiefs had a few high-ranking wives, who helped solidify alliances with other powerful families, and a few hundred secondary wives. In Africa, Ashante and Zulu kings each had 1000 or more wives. However, these are just the paramount chiefs or kings; there was usually a fleet of lesser elites who maintained smaller harems for themselves. Zande kings, for example each had more than 500 wives, but their chiefs also each maintained about 30 or 40 wives, and sometimes as many as 100. In Asia, things were even more extreme: medieval Khmer kings in Cambodia possessed five elite wives and several thousand secondary wives who were themselves graded into various classes…

J Henrich, The Weirdest people in the world, p 261

And so on. However, this kind of extreme, and graded, polygyny was barely sustainable as it led to a multitude of aggrieved, partnerless males at the bottom of the pyramid, ripening for rebellion. The ‘European contact’ Henrich mentions here would’ve added to the pressures on this ultra-polygynous situation. These European colonisers, or conquerors, would’ve been keen to impose the True Religion wherever they went, and with it the proto-WEIRD values of the time. Today, in post-colonial Africa and Asia, there is a fluctuating and often awkward and barely workable mix of WEIRD and clan-based values and lifestyles, which likely contribute to the political instability we often find in these regions.

Meanwhile, in more established WEIRD nations, nothing is static. Only a little over a century ago, no woman could vote in any ‘democratic’ country, of which there were very few in any case. Female political leaders are still rare, though a little less rare in the last fifty years than the previous fifty. Perhaps the biggest change in relatively recent times has been in female education and employment, which is slowly changing the scientific, legal and business landscape. Arguably women, by and large (there are plenty of exceptions), are less interested in hierarchical than collaborative enterprises, and their growing input will lead to a gradual improvement in political decision-making, international relations and less adversarial approaches to business and the law…

And as for monogamy – okay, ‘free love’ hasn’t taken off as I thought it might, but at the same time, things aren’t as they were in the fifties and before. Single parenthood has been on the rise for decades in the WEIRD world, for males as well as for females, and though the supports available aren’t quite as nurturing as those available for bonobos, they’re enough to enable a ‘normal’, stigma-free childhood. The concept of illegitimate children is more or less dead, and maybe one day the notion of illegitimate immigrants will go the same way. Passports and visas are a much more recent phenomenon than many people realise, and they may turn out to be fleeting in the long run, especially with the advent of climate migration in the now foreseeable future. All of this, and a recognition that we’re all in this together as a culpable species, will be better facilitated by a more caring, less combative attitude to our fellows, human and non-human.

Taken all in all, women are the better angels of our human nature. Yes, we’ve moved very very far from our bonobo cousins, and we regularly and even obsessively pat ourselves on the back for that. But all of our best instincts tell us that collaboration, mutual appreciation, and recognition of ourselves in others, including other species, are key, not to just our survival, but to our thriving in a richer, more sustainable environment.


Joseph Henrich, The Weirdest people in the world: how the West became psychologically peculiar and particularly prosperous, 2020

Bruno Bettelheim,The children of the dream, 1970

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from the underground, 1864

Gaia Vince, Nomad century, 2021

Written by stewart henderson

September 18, 2023 at 9:22 am

A bonobo world and other impossibilities 25: women and warfare (2)

with one comment

The following is re-posted and was first written on this blog in January 2019, but I’m doing this under a new title (with some changes) because it clearly belongs in this series.


humans, bonobos, coalitions and care

Shortly before I started writing the first part of this article, I read a sad and disturbing piece in a recent New Scientist, about an Iron Age citadel in modern Iran, called Hasanlu. Its tragic fate reminded me of the smaller scale tragedies that Goodall and others recount in chimpanzee societies, in which one group can systematically slaughter another.

Hasanlu was brutally attacked and destroyed at the end of the ninth century BCE, and amazingly, the massacred people at the site remained untouched until uncovered by archeologists only a few decades ago. One archeologist, Mary Voigt, who worked the site in 1970, has described her reaction:

I come from a long line line of undertakers. Dead people are not scary to me. But when I dug that site I had screaming nightmares.

Voigt’s first discovery was of a small child ‘just lying on the pavement’, with a spear point and an empty quiver lying nearby. In her words:

The unusual thing about the site is all this action is going on and you can read it directly: somebody runs across the courtyard, kills the little kid, dumps their quiver because it’s out of ammunition. If you keep going, there are arrow points embedded in the wall.

Voigt soon found more bodies, all women, on the collapsed roof of a stable:

They were in an elite part of the city yet none of them had any jewellery. Maybe they had been stripped or maybe they were servants. Who knows? But they were certainly herded back there and systematically killed. Its very vivid. Too vivid.


Subsequent studies found that they died from cranial trauma, their skulls smashed by a blunt instrument. And research found many other atrocities at the site. Headless or handless skeletons, skeletons grasping abdomens or necks, a child’s skull with a blade sticking out of it. All providing proof of a frenzy of violence against the inhabitants. There is still much uncertainty as to the perpetrators, but for our purposes, it’s the old story; one group or clan, perhaps cruelly powerful in the past, being ‘over-killed’, in an attempt at obliteration, by a newly powerful, equally cruel group or clan.

Interestingly, while writing this on January 4 2019, I also read about another massacre, exactly ten years ago, on January 4-5 2009. The densely populated district of Zeitoun in Gaza City was attacked by Israeli forces and 48 people, mostly members of the same family, and mostly women, children and the elderly, were killed, and a number of homes were razed to the ground. This was part of the 2008-9 ‘Gaza War’, known by the Arab population as the Gaza Massacre, and by the Israelis as Operation Cast Lead. The whole conflict resulted in approximately 1200-1400 Palestinian deaths. Thirteen Israelis died, four by friendly fire. And of course I could pick out dozens of other pieces of sickening brutality going on in various benighted parts of the world today.

Attempts by one group of people to obliterate another, whether through careful planning or the frenzy of the moment, have been a part of human history, and they’re ongoing. They are traceable as far back, at least, as the ancestry we share with chimpanzees.

But we’re not chimps, or bonobos. A fascinating documentary about those apes has highlighted many similarities between them and us, some not noted before, but also some essential differences. They can hunt with spears, they can use water as a tool, they can copy humans, and collaborate with them, to solve problems. Yet they’re generally much more impulsive creatures than humans – they easily forget what they’ve learned, and they don’t pass on information or knowledge to each other in any systematic way. Some chimp or bonobo communities learn some tricks while others learn other completely different tricks – and not all members of the community learn them. Humans learn from each other instinctively and largely ‘uncomprehendingly’, as in the learning of language. They just do it, and everyone does it, barring genetic defects or other disabilities.

So it’s possible, just maybe, that we can learn from bonobos, and kick the bad habits we share with chimps, despite the long ancestry of our brutality.

Frans De Waal is probably the most high-profile and respected bonobo researcher. Here’s some of what he has to say:

The species is best characterized as female-centered and egalitarian and as one that substitutes sex for aggression. Whereas in most other species sexual behavior is a fairly distinct category, in the bonobo it is part and parcel of social relations–and not just between males and females. Bonobos engage in sex in virtually every partner combination (although such contact among close family members may be suppressed). And sexual interactions occur more often among bonobos than among other primates. Despite the frequency of sex, the bonobos rate of reproduction in the wild is about the same as that of the chimpanzee. A female gives birth to a single infant at intervals of between five and six years. So bonobos share at least one very important characteristic with our own species, namely, a partial separation between sex and reproduction.

Bonobo sex and society, Scientific American, 2006.

Now, I’m a bit reluctant to emphasise sex too much here (though I’m all for it myself), but there appears to be a direct relationship in bonobo society between sexual behaviour and many positives, including one-on-one bonding, coalitions and care and concern for more or less all members of the group. My reluctance is probably due to the fact that sexual repression is far more common in human societies worldwide than sexual permissiveness, or promiscuity – terms that are generally used pejoratively. And maybe I still have a hankering for a Freudian theory I learned about in my youth – that sexual sublimation is the basis of human creativity. You can’t paint too many masterpieces or come up with too many brilliant scientific theories when you’re constantly bonking or mutually masturbating. Having said that, we’re currently living in societies where the arts and sciences are flourishing like never before, while a large chunk of our internet time (though far from the 70% occasionally claimed) is spent watching porn. Maybe some people can walk, or rather wank, and chew over a few ideas at the same (and for some it amounts to the same thing).

So what I do want to emphasise is ‘female-centredness’ (rather than ‘matriarchy’ which is too narrow a term). I do think that a more female-centred society would be more sensual – women are more touchy-feely. I often see my female students walking arm in arm in their friendship, which rarely happens with the males, no matter their country of origin (I teach international students). Women are highly represented in the caring professions – though the fact that we no longer think of the ‘default’ nurse as female is a positive – and they tend to come together well for the best purposes, as for example the Women Wage Peace movement which brings Israeli and Palestinian women together in a more or less apolitical push to promote greater accord in their brutalised region.

October 2017 – Palestinian and Israeli women march for peace near the Dead Sea, and demand representation in any future talks

Women’s tendency to ‘get along’ and work in teams needs to be harnessed and empowered. There are, of course, obstructionist elements to be overcome – in particular some of the major religions, such as Catholic Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, all of which date back centuries or millennia and tend to congeal or ‘eternalise’ the patriarchal social mores and power structures of those distant times. However, there’s no doubt that Christianity, as the most western religion, is in permanent decline, and other religions will continue to feel the heat of our spectacular scientific developments – including our better understanding of other species and their evolved and unwritten moral codes.

The major religions tend to take male supremacy for granted as the natural order of things, but Melvin Konner, in his book Women after all, has summarised an impressive array of bird and mammal species which turn the tables on our assumptions about male hunters and female nurturers. Jacanas, hyenas, cassowaries, montane voles, El Abra pygmy swordtails (a species of fish) and rats, these are just a few of the creatures that clearly defy patriarchal stereotypes. In many fish and bird species, the females physically outweigh the males, and there’s no sense that, in the overwhelming majority of bird species – whose recently-discovered smarts I’ve written about and will continue to write about – one gender bosses the other.

Turning back to human societies, there are essentially three types of relations for continuing the species – monogamy, polyandry and polygyny. One might think that polyandry – where women can have a harem of males to bed with – would be the optimum arrangement for a female-centred society, but in fact all three arrangements can be turned to (or against) the advantage of females. Unsurprisingly, polygyny (polyandry’s opposite) is more commonly practiced in human society, both historically and at present, but in such societies, women often have a ‘career open to talents’, where they and their offspring may have high status due to their manipulative (in the best sense of the word) smarts. In any case, what I envisage for the future is a fluidity of relations, in which children are cared for by males and females regardless of parentage. This brings me back to bonobos, who develop female coalitions to keep the larger males in line. Males are uncertain of who their offspring is in a polyamorous community, but unlike in a chimp community, they can’t get away with infanticide, because the females are in control in a variety of ways. In fact, evolution has worked its magic in bonobo society in such a way that the males are more concerned to nurture offspring than to attack them. And it’s notable that, in modern human societies, this has also become the trend. The ‘feminine’ side of males is increasingly extolled, and the deference shown to females is increasing, despite the occasional throwback like Trump-Putin. It will take a long time, even in ‘advanced’ western societies, but I think the trend is clear. We will, or should, become more like bonobos, because we need to. We don’t need to use sex necessarily, because we have something that bonobos lack – language. And women are very good at language, at least so has been my experience. Talk is a valuable tool against aggression and dysfunction; think of the talking cure, peace talks, being talked down from somewhere or talked out of something. Talk is often beyond cheap, it can be priceless in its benefits. We need to empower the voices of women more and more.

This not a ‘fatalism lite’ argument; there’s nothing natural or evolutionarily binding about this trend. We have to make it happen. This includes, perhaps first off, fighting against the argument that patriarchy is in some sense a better, or more natural system. That involves examining the evidence. Konner has done a great job of attempting to summarise evidence from human societies around the world and throughout history – in a sense carrying on from Aristotle thousands of years ago when he tried to gather together the constitutions of the Greek city-states, to see which might be most effective, and so to better shape the Athenian constitution. A small-scale, synchronic plan by our standards, but by the standards of the time a breath-taking step forward in the attempt not just to understand his world, but to improve it.


Melvin Konner, Women after all, 2015

New Scientist, ‘The horror of Hasanlu’ September 15 2018

Max Blumenthal, Goliath, 2013



Written by stewart henderson

January 25, 2021 at 9:22 pm