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a bonobo world, etc 17 – good and bad hierarchies, human superiority and extinction threats

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Robert Sapolsky on hierarchies – always worth listening to

One might say that bonobo society isn’t democratic, it’s hierarchical. But of course being hierarchical isn’t the opposite of being democratic. Every human society has been and is hierarchical. The hierarchy in earliest human times was probably based on raw prowess in providing resources and maintaining effective order in the group, the tribe, the village. Whoever managed to do so obtained prestige for himself, his family or breeding partners and his heirs, until such time as it all fell apart and competitors proved more effective. History, some former toff wrote, is a graveyard of aristocracies, but as human society became more formalised, those aristocracies often survived beyond their utility (to everyone but the aristocratic clique), as witness various hereditary power systems. Arguably the most unequal and rigid hierarchies were based on land ownership and control, when societies were largely agricultural, in feudal Europe and no doubt elsewhere. The more one family was able to concentrate power in its hands, as in medieval Britain and Czarist Russia, the more steps there would be in the ladder to the bottom, where the majority slaved away. 

Nowadays, of course, we’re more slaves to our devices than to any human overlords. Most of us have never seen a harvest, but our homes are full of fruits and wines, basics and treats. Where our ancestors were treated as little more than effluent, we now feel ourselves to be relatively affluent, even with part-time work in service or tech industries. Where our forebears worried about the breadline, we’re more concerned about our waistline, and where we’ll put all our stuff. In his indispensable book The origin of feces (I had to buy it), David Waltner-Toews points out that, with some 7.5 billion human apes on the planet, we’re producing over 400 million tonnes of shit per year. Add to that our ever-increasing loads of sheepshit, bullshit, horseshit and chickenshit, and the figures for these are as mucky as the topic, and you might start to worry whether it’s the effluent of affluence that will finally bury us. 

However, the prospect of spaceship Earth gradually filling up with the brown-and-yellow, or any other stuff, shouldn’t concern us, not because it’s all more or less biodegradable, but because spaceship Earth is just a bad metaphor, according to David Deutsch in The beginning of infinity. For Deutsch, the problem with the metaphor is its emphasis on finite resources, finite space, finite everything, and the idea that we humans are abusing the spaceship’s finite ‘design’. Deutsch is a boundless admirer of Jacob Bronowski and his 70s series ‘The ascent of man’, by which he means we human apes. Basically, Deutsch and Bronowski share the vision of a Danish prince written about some centuries ago: 

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals.

There seems to have been a bit of sarcasm at play there, but Deutsch is very much an optimist about human capacities, as his book’s title implies. The ascent of human apes isn’t like an ascent to the mountain’s summit, even less up the stairway to heaven, it’s the rise and expansion into a human-created infinity of invention and creation – a forever bubble blown out of human ingenuity, as progress accelerates and earth-boundness becomes hide-boundness and shit turns to sugar through the magic of science that is not magic.

And yet there are still human hierarchies, on an individual and even a national level. There are the OECD nations, for example, and those who don’t make the grade. There are the G8 or G7 nations and the not-so G7 nations. And there are the stateless and the non-nationalists, who might sometimes wish they were bonobos. Or would if they only knew… 

Meanwhile, bonobos, hierarchical but also inclusive. Huddled together lovingly, mostly, and besieged, perhaps without knowing it. Did the last Neanderthals, perhaps huddled together in Gibraltar’s caves, know, or have any inkling, that they were the last? The African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) describes bonobos as Africa’s forgotten ape. Many people I know hadn’t even heard of them. It might well be their remoteness, compared to chimps. The southern bank of the Congo bears little resemblance to la rive gauche of Paris, and long may it remain so, but for years the region has been threatened by human warfare, slash and burn agriculture, and bushmeat hunting. The current wild population is hard to assess, but it is at least larger than perhaps the smallest ethnic group of humans, the Samaritans, who number less than a thousand. The Samaritans, however differ from bonobos in that their numbers are very gradually rising, without the need for them to be protected in zoos. Bonobos also manage to be charitable without religion. 

Truly the threats to the bonobo community are no laughing matter, and I hope in my way to provide them with a pinch more of publicity. There’s competition of course. The solitary orang-utans of Sumatra and Borneo are under severe threat from deforestation and palm oil production, and Madagascar’s unique biodiversity is being devastated, again by slash and burn agriculture, as well as mining, climate change, invasive species, overharvesting and habitat fragmentation. Andy Isaacson writes about it in Cosmos magazine: 

Madagascar’s endemic lemurs are now the most threatened group of primates on Earth, and nearly all of its species (94%) are at risk of extinction because of habitat loss and unsustainable hunting. 

As always, there are human heroes, local and international, struggling to protect and improve the lives of these cousins of ours. Bonobos are facing an upsurge of hunting, according to AWF’s Jacqueline Conciatore:

For a long time, local taboos against hunting bonobos, who are so human-like, protected the peaceable apes. But those mores are dropping off under the influence of cultural outsiders and with tradition’s weakening hold on the young. Today, commercial bushmeat hunting, supported by ever more trade routes, joins habitat loss as a top threat to bonobos. Some researchers estimate that tons of bushmeat are extracted daily in bonobo range areas. The number of bonobos killed for bushmeat is limited compared to other species, but because bonobos reproduce slowly, bushmeat hunting poses a dire threat.

Spaceship Earth may seem ever-expandable for the all-conquering, infinitely capable human ape, and of course I accept that we aren’t under threat here in the way that the Ehrlichs’ book The Population Bomb notoriously predicted, but it’s notable that David Deutsch makes no mention of the plight of other species, let alone other apes, in his book about the future. Perhaps we can do without them?


Andy Isaacson, ‘Food to save Madagascar’s future’, in Cosmos, issue 88

David Waltner-Toews, The origin of feces, 2013

David Deutsch, The beginning of infinity, 2011

Written by stewart henderson

December 17, 2020 at 8:15 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