an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

Posts Tagged ‘chimpanzees

humans and neanderthals and chimps and bonobos

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We now know for sure that humans and neanderthals interbred. How much, we don’t know, nor do we know the nature of the interbreeding. The spectrum presumably goes from love and flowers to warfare slaughter and rape, and I recently heard one pundit arguing for the latter option, and I tend to agree, especially given what information ancient DNA is providing about human populations over the last 50,000 years or so – that’s to say, it appears that it was much less a case of cultures and practises spreading from one place to another than populations replacing earlier populations. And it may well be that we’ll get a more gory-detail picture of human-neanderthal intimacies in the foreseeable.

We’ve also learned that chimps and bonobos bonked after their separation due to the creation of the Congo River between one and two million years ago. I wish I’d been there to see it. My guess is that would’ve been far less traumatic, though perhaps not too lovey-dovey either.

So if we accept that violence was involved – who were the perps and who the victims? My feeling is that humans were the rapists, for the simple reason that we’re still here. Neanderthals disappeared some 40,000 years ago, though a remnant population appears to have survived in the Iberian Peninsula for another few thousand years. With chimps and bonobos it was probably more fifty-fifty, though I’m prepared to accept that nothing is ever that simple.

The fact that many of us – I don’t know about me – have some neanderthal DNA is probably a mixed blessing (some genes for absorbing sunlight may have predisposed us to skin cancer, others may have affected our ability to process carbs), but it hasn’t prevented us from quadrupling our population in the last century. And since we’ve produced the first whole-genome sequence of the neanderthal genome, they’ll soon be back with us, so no worries. Unfortunately, their memories of what we did to them will have been wiped, but we’re working on it.

Seriously, humans most likely were one of many contributors to neanderthal extinction. The two species shared similar European territories for the last few millennia before their disappearance, with human numbers apparently growing as neanderthals dwindled. Maybe they were out-competed in hunting big game, and small,  as their diets would’ve been more or less identical to ours. Studies of neanderthal teeth from different environments (north-west and south-west Europe) indicate that they were opportunistic dieters, eating more meat in some regions, less in others, not all-out carnivores as previously thought, so this brings them even closer in line with humans, and in competition with them when habitats overlapped. And if anything, ancient DNA is telling us that our human ancestry was even more violent than previously thought – and we’ve long known how bad it was.

We don’t have any direct evidence that modern humans killed neanderthals, and we may never have such evidence. Professor Chris Stringer of London’s Natural History Museum argues that, as we now know that both species inhabited Western Europe for about 10,000 years before neanderthals died out, there was more likely a kind of awkward balance between the two species for much of that time. So, maybe killing but not outright extermination. Of course the same can be said for the large mammals that humans hunted. There was never any intention to exterminate them, but the pressure they were put under did for them in the end.

With chimps and bonobos, that seems to me even more of a mystery. What does a chimp look like to a bonobo, and vice versa? Most of us wouldn’t be able to tell one from the other, but that’s because we’re humans. In the past, Europeans used to say that all Chinese looked the same. Back in Darwin’s day and before, the people of Africa, Australia and Indonesia were collectively termed ‘savages’ by ‘white’ people. It’s taken a while for us dumb humans to become more discriminating. So it’s hardly surprising that bonobos weren’t recognised as a separate species from chimps until well into the twentieth century. Speciation itself is a rather more complicated and questionable affair than it was thought to be in the time of Linnaeus – and it wasn’t particularly simple then. Here’s an interesting quote from a Science article on chimp-bonobo interbreeding:

These findings come on the heels of other genome analyses—such as between coyotes, dogs, and wolves—showing such gene flow between species. “The more we look at genomes, the more it seems to be found,” [Professor Jim Mallet] says. “It’s going to be pretty common,” he predicts.

An article in, a popular science site, linked below, provides a summary of the physical and social differences between bonobos and chimps, though I can’t vouch for its accuracy – for example it claims that bonobo males and females are ‘much closer in size’ than chimp males and females. I’d always thought that the sexual dimorphism difference was slight, now I’m not so sure. Another interesting difference, that I’d not noticed before in my reading, is that bonobos have dark faces from birth, whereas chimps’ faces are lighter, and darken with age. I can well believe though that there are individual differences, in this as in robustness and gracility, bonobos being in general more gracile. Of course, chimp males are more dominant, so I can well imagine chimp-bonobo interbreeding to be a violent affair. And with bonobo females tending to stick together it would’ve been difficult to pick off an isolated female. Perhaps we should build a few Pan-friendly bridges across the Congo River and see what happens….


Written by stewart henderson

February 24, 2023 at 1:22 pm

Did bonobos do it with chimps? Well, duh

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bonobos or chimps? Or both? Or neither? What’s in a name…?

Canto: So we’ve been learning than we did it with Neanderthals, and that Neanderthals did it with Denisovans, and I remember hearing an anthropologist or palaeontologist saying that it’s likely that our split with our last common ancestor with chimps and bonobos – they call it the CHLCA (chimp-human last common ancestor, eliminating bonobos altogether, sigh) – wasn’t necessarily a clean break, which surely makes sense.

Jacinta: Well, yes, as we’ve read, the split was caused by the relatively sudden creation of the Congo River, but the word ‘relatively’, is, well, relative. So this raises the question of speciation in general. Think of those Galapagos finches that so intrigued Darwin. All about differently-shaped beaks, but it didn’t happen overnight.

Canto: Right, so here’s what a website with the rather all-encompassing title “Science” says about our topic:

Tens of thousands of years ago, modern humans slept around with Neandertals and swapped some genes. Now, it turns out one of our closest living relatives, chimpanzees, also dallied with another species. New research reveals that chimps mixed it up with bonobos at least twice during the 2 million years since these great apes started evolving their own identities. Although it’s not yet clear whether the acquired genes were ultimately beneficial or harmful, the finding strengthens the idea that such cross-species mating played an important role in the evolution of the great apes.

Jacinta: Interestingly this Congo River separation which led to a completely different species was repeated by other separations which led to four sub-species of chimps. Which leads me to wonder – what’s the difference between a new species and a sub-species? Why are bonobos ‘deserving’ of being called a different species?

Canto: Well the Science article has some fascinating further information. This was the work of Christina Hvilsom and colleagues, described as ‘conservation geneticists’. They were using any genetic differences they could find to work out where particular chimps were being caught or hunted. But, since the interbreeding of humans and Neanderthals, proven by DNA, had hit the headlines, Hvilsom wondered about the DNA of chimps. So, using the same methods that uncovered Neanderthal in humans –

she and her colleagues determined that 1% of the central chimpanzee’s genome is bonobo DNA. The genetic analysis indicates that this inbreeding happened during two time periods: 1.5 million years ago bonobo ancestors mixed with the ancestor of the eastern and central chimps. Then, just 200,000 years ago, central chimps got another boost of bonobo genes, the team reports today in Science. In contrast, the western chimp subspecies has no bonobo DNA, the researchers note, suggesting that only those chimps living close to the Congo River entertained bonobo consorts.

Jacinta: What this highlights, more than anything to me, is the importance and excitement of genetic and genomic analyses. Not that we’re experts on the topic, but it has clearly revolutionised the science of evolution, complicating it in quite exciting ways. Think again of those Galapogos finches. Separation, some interbreeding, more separation, less interbreeding, but with a few kinks along the way.

Canto: And we’re just beginning our play with genetics and genomics. There’s surely a lot more to come. Ah, to live forever…

Jacinta: So how did they know some inbreeding occurred? Can we understand the science of this without torturing ourselves?

Canto: David Reich’s book Who we are and how we got here tells the story of interbreeding between human populations, and how population genetics has revolutionised our understanding of the subject. With dread, I’ll try to explain the science behind it. First, the Science article quoted above mentions a split between bonobos and chimps 2 million years ago. Others I’ve noted go back only about a million years – for example a Cambridge University video referenced below. The inference, to me, is that there was a gradual separation over a fair amount of time, as aforementioned. I mean, how long does it take to create a major river? Now, I can’t get hold of the data on chimp-bonobo interbreeding in particular, so I’ll try to describe how geneticists detect interbreeding in general.

I’ll look at the human genome, and I’ll start at the beginning – a very good place to start. This largely comes from Who we are and how we got here, and the following quotes come from that book. The human genome consists of a double chain of 3 billion nucleobases, adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine. That’s 6 billion bases (often called letters – A, C, G and T) in all. Genes are small sections of this base chain (called DNA), typically a thousand or so letters long. They’re templates or codes for building proteins of many and varied types for doing many different kinds of work, although there are segments in between made up of non-coding DNA.

Researchers have been able to ‘read’ these letters via machinery that creates chemical reactions to specific DNA sequences:

The reactions emit a different colour for each of the letters A, C, G and T, so that the sequence of letters can be scanned into a computer by a camera.

What anthropologists want to focus on are mutations – random errors in the copying process, which tend to occur at a rate of about one in every thousand letters. So, about 3 million differences, or mutations, per genome (3 billion genes, coding or non-coding). But genomes change over time due to these mutations and each individual’s genome is unique. The number of differences between two individuals’ genomes tells us something about their relatedness. The more differences, the less related. And there’s also a more or less constant rate of mutations:

So the density of differences provides a biological stopwatch, a record of how long it has been since key events occurred in the past.

As Reich recounts, it was the analysis of mitochondrial DNA, the tiny proportion of the genome that descends entirely down the maternal line, that became a corner-stone of the out-of-Africa understanding of human origins, which had been competing with the multi-regional hypothesis for decades. ‘Mitochondrial Eve’ – a rather ‘western’ moniker considering that the Adam and Eve myth is only one of a multitude of origin stories – lived in Botswana in Southern Africa about 160,000 to 200,000 years ago, given the variability of the genomic ‘clock’ – the mutation rate.

So, what does this have to do with chimps and bonobos? Well, The exact detail of how Hvilsom et al proved that their (slightly) more recent interbreeding events occurred is hidden behind a paywall, and you could say I’m a cheapskate but the reality is I’m quite poor, trying to bring up seven kids and a few dozen grandkids in a home not much bigger than a toilet, so… but truthfully I’m just getting by, and I just want to know in general the techniques used.

First, they have to find ancient specimens, I think. But, in a video referenced below, they raised the question – Can we ‘excavate’ ancient DNA from modern specimens? We’ve learned that many modern humans have a certain percentage of Neanderthal DNA, say around 2%, but each person’s 2% may be different. Aggregating those different segments can, if we analyse the genomes of enough humans, create a whole Neanderthal genome, though not one of any Neanderthal who ever lived!  At least that’s how I’m reading it, in my dilettantish way. So what exactly does this tell us? I’m not at all sure – it’s a relatively new research area, and completely new to me.

The presenter of this video uses the heading, at least at the beginning of his talk, ‘A little Archaic introgression goes a long way’. So now I need to know what introgression means. A quick look-up tells me it’s:

‘the transfer of genetic information from one species to another as a result of hybridization between them and repeated backcrossing.

I’ve bolded two key words here. Hybridisation, in mammals, is ‘breeding between two distinct taxonomic units’.  Note that the term species isn’t used, presumably because it has long been a questionable or loaded concept – life just seems too complex for such hard and fast divisions. Backcrossing seems self-explanatory. Without looking it up, I’d guess it’s just what we’ve been learning about. Canoodling after speciation should’ve ruled canoodling out.

But, looking it up – not so! It’s apparently not something happening in the real world, something like backsliding. But then… Here’s how Wikipedia puts it:

Backcrossing may be deliberately employed in animals to transfer a desirable trait in an animal of inferior genetic background to an animal of preferable genetic background.

This is unclear, to say the least. How could an animal, even a human, deliberately do this? We could do it to other animals, or try it, based on phenotypes. We’ve been doing that for centuries. What follows makes it more or less clear that this is about human experimentation with other animals, though.

Anyway, I’m going well off-topic here. What I wanted to do is try to understand the proof of, or evidence for, bonobo-chimp interbreeding. I accept that it happened, well after the split between these two very similar-looking species. What could be less surprising? Along the way I’ve been reminded inter alia, of homozygous and heterozygous alleles, but I’ve been frustrated that straightforward information isn’t being made available to the general public, aka myself. I’ll pursue this further in later posts.

Jacinta: What a mess. Phenotype isn’t everything my friend. To a bonobo, a chimp probably looks like a neanderthal – a real bonehead… They probably only had sex with them out of pity. ‘Boys, we’ll show you a good time – like you’ve never had before.’


David Reich, Who we are and how we got here, 2018


Written by stewart henderson

February 7, 2023 at 8:50 pm

more on hormones, bonobos and humans

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So having recently read Carole Hooven’s Testosterone: the hormone that dominates and divides us, an extremely informative and well-argued book that was basically a necessary read for me, considering my obsession with a more bonobo-like world for humans, I’m left with – what to do? How can I incorporate all this hormonal stuff into my ‘bonobo world and other impossibilities’ essays? I know I’ve mentioned hormones here and there, but never in any detail. Basically I’ve noted, along with Steven Pinker and others, that ‘we’re getting better’. Less violent, more caring of our children, more appreciative of our ‘feminine’ side, more questioning of the nature of gender, a little less male-dominant, at least in the WEIRD world. And since this doesn’t seem to have involved hormones, at least on the face of it, the testosterone issue was never so much front and centre in my dreams of human transformation as was the example, largely ignored by the human world, as it seems to me, of bonobo society.

Sadly, Hooven hardly mentions bonobos, so I need to do some bonobo-testosterone research myself. Here are my initial thoughts. Since bonobos, along with chimps, are our closest rellies, it’s reasonable to assume that we’re hormonally very similar (research required). So how did they evolve into the make-love-not-war apes (yes, an over-simplifying cliché), and why did we evolve more along the chimp line (yes, with great diversity, but very few cultures that ‘aped’ bonobos)?

Again, before I start looking at research abstracts, I can surmise a little. Chimps eat more meat than bonobos, which means more hunting and killing. Testosterone helps with that. The males are more into it so they gang together, leaving the women – sorry, the females – behind. There will be teamwork but also show-offy competition and a muscular hierarchy within the team. And the excitement of the hunt will boost testosterone all the more, which will be worked off on the females afterwards. Bonobos on the other hand spend more time in the trees, in a relatively nutrient-rich part of the DRC rainforest, eating mostly fruit and nuts. Not the sort of stuff you have to chase around and bash to death. And they hang around together, so the males might spend more time entertaining the kids, more or less by default.

And there are mysteries. The male bonobos are bigger than the females, by about the same proportion as humans. The females keep control by female-female bonding, often sexualised, but since ‘sexual healing’ goes on in every possible combination, why don’t the males gain control by the same means? Or why haven’t they? (It wouldn’t be a matter of deciding to do so, more an evolved thing, which didn’t happen). Also dominant females appear to have favoured male offspring, who might serve as their captain-at-arms, in a sense. But now I’m starting to speculate more wildly.

So, the research: in 2010, a paper was published in PNAS (pronounced ‘penis’ by the cognoscenti), entitled ‘Differential changes in steroid hormones before competition in bonobos and chimpanzees’. It described an experiment conducted on male pairs of chimps and bonobos (chimp with chimp, bonobo with bonobo). The pairs were tested for hormonal changes before and after two different food-sharing settings:

We found that in both species, males showed an anticipatory decrease (relative to baseline) in steroids when placed with a partner in a situation in which the two individuals shared food, and an anticipatory increase when placed with a partner in a situation in which the dominant individual obtained more food.

However, these ‘endocrine shifts’ occurred in cortisol for bonobos, and testosterone for chimps, which was more or less as predicted by the researchers. And why did they predict this?

Given that chimpanzees and bonobos differ markedly in their food-sharing behavior, we predicted that they would differ in their rapid endocrine shifts.

Cortisol is generally regarded as a stress hormone, or the fight or flight hormone. I used to get one of those ‘shifts’ (which sent me to the toilet) before teaching a new class. I haven’t asked female teachers if they ‘suffered’ similarly.

Because competition for overt markers of status and mating opportunities is more relevant to males, these effects are less consistent in females.

I’m not sure I was concerned about mating opportunities when starting a new class – could get me into a spot of bother – but status, maybe. But what interests me is that hormone shifts follow social behavioural patterns. That’s to say, shifts in testosterone will be rapid in all-male groups such as male gangs (which I experienced as a young person), in which the pecking order is constantly under challenge, all the way down the line. Cortisol too, I suppose, but gangs are all about ‘proving manhood’, which didn’t at the time seem to be all about sex, but in a not-so-roundabout way, it was.

Chimps, as mentioned, tend to hang together in these sorts of tight hierarchical groups, and so show a stronger ‘power motive’, a term used in human competition research. Bonobos are more co-operative, to the point of becoming stressed when food isn’t easily shared:

Because bonobo conflicts rarely escalate to severe aggression, we might classify bonobos as possessing a passive coping style…

That sounds like me, especially in my youth – considering that, all through my school years, I was one of the two or three smallest kids in the class, male or female, what other coping style could I have? But unfortunately, in the human world, too many blokes have an active coping style, together with a power motive, making misérables of the rest of us.

So, I’ve focused only on this one piece of research for this little essay, and I’ll have a look at more in the future. What it tells me is that we can, indeed, and should, shape our society to become more bonoboesque in the future, for the good of us all. It is heading that way anyway (again with that WEIRD world caveat), in spite of the Trumps and their epigones (dear, the idea that Old Shitmouth could bring forth epigones is grossly disturbing). One last quote from the researchers:

These findings suggest that independent mechanisms govern the sensitivity of testosterone and cortisol to competition, and that distinct factors may affect anticipatory vs. response shifts in apes and humans. Future species comparisons can continue to illuminate how ecology has shaped species differences in behavioral endocrinology, including the selection pressures acting in human evolution.
And of course human evolution continues…

can’t get enough of bonobo bonding


Carole Hooven, Testosterone: the hormone that dominates and divides us, 2021


Written by stewart henderson

November 1, 2022 at 10:52 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

a bonobo world? an outlier, but also a possibility: 2

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1. the small world of bonobos

Definitely one of the best introductions to the bonobo world is Frans De Waal’s 2006 essay for Scientific American, available online. It describes a species that branched off from its chimp cousin some two million years ago. Although genetic researchers have made it known that humans are equally related to chimps and bonobos, we’ve come to realise that a basic bean-count of genes shared is an overly simplistic approach to measuring our connectedness with other species. In any case we still have much to learn from both of our closest living relatives, especially in terms of their social relationships, and our own. We have of course developed a culture, or a range of cultures that are much more diverse and dynamic than our primate cousins, which is some cause for optimism. We are, I hope, always learning better how and what to learn.

I believe it is very much worth looking at chimps and bonobos, not as opposites, which of course they aren’t, nor quite as models for humans to follow, but as two of many possible forms of our species in an earlier stage of cultural development. The fact is, and I should think this is unarguable, early humans, in their territoriality, their aggression, their gender-based division of labour, and their ownership fetishism, have largely developed from the basic cultural outlook of chimps rather than bonobos. Our history is marred by mostly male violence and hubris, and the power of possession, formerly of land, latterly of resources and technological know-how, and their transformation into financial power and influence, leading to systemic inequalities and a cult of selfishness.

But of course human culture isn’t one thing, and it has been subject to dizzying developments in modern times. Most astonishing is the growth of knowledge and its availability and rapid dissemination in the internet age. I’ll be taking advantage of that growth and availability in what follows. However the ‘democratisation’ of knowledge that the internet potentially provides is hampered by various anti-democratic forces, such as governments who are largely able, and very much concerned, to control information flow within their borders, and social media moguls who are less interested in accurate knowledge than in the monetisation of any and every opinion. 

Whether the internet revolution, which has been with us for little more than a generation, will lead to a greater homogeneity of human culture, or its opposite, or neither in any clear sense, is yet to be seen, and so it might seem a little rich to try to learn, in our human world of close to 8 billion denizens, from the habits of a small group of primates struggling to eke out an existence in a forested region south of the Congo River. Current estimates of bonobo numbers in the wild range from 10,000 to 50,000. As is well known, their habitat is often under threat due to the political instability in the region, which has also made it difficult to assess numbers. In any case it’s clear, as with most endangered species, that the greatest threat to their survival in the wild is Homo sapiens.

Of course, one way to learn from them is to treat them as just another culture. This no doubt leads to questions about the culture concept, which will be further explored, but it seems clear that the most intelligent non-human species, such as chimps and bonobos, most cetaceans, elephants and some corvids, are highly socially organised, to say the least. Of course, always thinking of counter-examples, I can’t account for the intelligence of octopuses and some other largely solitary cephalopods, though one theory has it that their complex neurology developed as a defence against a wide range of predators – which has also been cited, mutatis mutandis, as an explanation for the complex development of culture in western Europe. 

One of the most interesting questions about bonobos and their largely female-dominated society is how that society came about, considering that bonobo females, like chimps, gorillas and humans, are smaller on average than the males. Clearly, size and attendant strength is an advantage in the kinds of environments early humans and their primate cousins had to deal with. We have no clear answer to this question, though it’s noteworthy that the bonobo diet, being less meat-heavy than that of chimps, would require less aggressive hunting, and strength to overcome prey. This raises the question – did the rise of females lead to a less carnivorous diet or was it the other way around?

First, let’s look at the bonobo diet. They are very much tree-dwellers, and fruit always forms a large part of their diet, but also leaves, seeds and flowers. Animal foods include worms and some insects, and the occasional snake or flying squirrel. This suggests that they rarely go on hunting expeditions. The bonobo habitat is generally more forested than that of chimps, and they spend more time in the tree-tops, harvesting the food they find there. It could be that the physical habitat of chimps, which is relatively more savannah-like, actually led to a more spread-out, competitive culture, compared to the closer-knit bonobos in their denser, tighter environment. If this is true, it’s reasonable to infer that the strength advantage of the larger males might be diminished by habitat. Perhaps, given a few million more years, the size difference between males and females may reduce. 

On another point of physicality, bonobos are described as slightly more gracile, or slender, than chimps, which has led some experts to believe that their physical resemblance to Australopithecus makes them more like living examples of our direct ancestors than chimps. Others see different connections:

According to Australian anthropologists Gary Clark and Maciej Henneberg, human ancestors went through a bonobo-like phase featuring reduced aggression and associated anatomical changes, exemplified in Ardipithecus ramidus.

Using bonobos as a guide to potential human behaviour often meets with strong push-back. I’ve experienced this myself in a number of conversations, and usually the argument is that we are so far removed from our primate cousins, and so much more culturally evolved, and diverse, that comparisons are odious. However, I suspect much of this is due to an arrogance about our sophistication which prevents us from learning lessons, not only from other primates but from other cultures that we deem inferior, even without consciously acknowledging the fact. Yet we are learning those lessons, and benefitting from them. Generally speaking, we – I mean those from a WASP perspective, like myself – are recognising that indigenous or first nation cultures were far better adapted to their environments than the later white arrivals – and that this adaptation was hard-won over many generations, during which a collective bank of experience developed. I would cite Bruce Pascoe’s book, Dark Emu, and its many references, for bringing about greater recognition of the achievements of Australia’s long-resident non-European cultures, for example. 



Dark Emu, by Bruce Pascoe, Magabala Books, 2014

Written by stewart henderson

October 23, 2020 at 3:12 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