a bonobo humanity?

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

Posts Tagged ‘hunter-gatherers

bonobos, an outlier in the primate world, and yet…

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any excuse for a nice bonobo pic

In trying to develop a bonobo world with human characteristics, or perhaps more realistically a human world with bonobo characteristics, I suspect it’s best not to start by disparaging the male (human) brain as ‘unevolved’ or distinctly inferior to that of the female – something I heard in an interview with a male psychotherapist recently. Firstly, it make no sense to say that a brain, or a human, or a dog, a dolphin or a donkey is ‘unevolved’. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of evolution, which is about ongoing change to most effectively adapt to a changing environment. And this includes social environments. The Andamanese, a tiny population living on scattered islands in the Bay of Bengal from about 25,000 years ago, and driven almost to extinction in the 18th and 19th centuries by the introduction of measles, influenza, pneumonia, and alcohol, have recovered somewhat and preserve their simple lifestyle via extreme hostility to interlopers, and are no more unevolved than were the ancient Hominins who once lived on the Indonesian island of Flores. It’s true, of course, that evolution can be competitive, and some species – or sub-species or cultures – can win out over others, but to describe this as due to being ‘more evolved’ rather over-simplifies matters. Each species evolves to survive and thrive in its own niche, and may thrive in that way for an eon, but may be swept away by another invasive species, or by relatively sudden climate change, or by very sudden events such as meteor showers or volcanic eruptions.

In the same interview, the psychotherapist described the male brain, including his own, as sick and in some sense mentally unbalanced compared to the female brain. And you can go onto YouTube and other sources to find dozens of mini-lectures and expert opinions on the male versus the female brain.

However, it might surprise people to know that there is no categorical difference between the male and female brain, at least not in the sense there is, usually, between a male and female body. Put another way, if a neurologist with decades of experience was given a disembodied brain and asked about its sex, she wouldn’t be able to say, categorically, whether it was male or female. There are statistical differences – males have, on average, more ‘grey matter’ (individual neurons) while females have more ‘white matter’ (myelinated axons connecting neurons) – but there is great diversity within this frame, which should hardly surprise us. Our brains develop within the womb, subject to the diet and environmental conditions of our mothers, and genetic and epigenetic factors have their role to play. In early childhood neural connections multiply rapidly in response to a multitude of more or less unique conditioning factors, and new connections continue to be made well into adulthood, resulting in more than eight billion tediously unique noggins clashing and combining in tediously unique ways.

So, to me, it’s behaviour that we need to start with. Of course I’m interested in the nervous system and the endocrine system of bonobos, but that’s because I’m first and foremost taken by their behaviour. I’m encouraged by what I see as changes in male behaviour in the WEIRD world, but then I was told recently that male violence against women is actually increasing. Of course these things are hard to measure as not all violence is reported, and the very concept of violence may be disputed, but a quick look at figures for Australia, which surely qualifies as a WEIRD nation, suggests that my sense of things is right:

Experiences of partner violence in the 12 months before the survey (last 12 months) remained relatively stable for both men and women between 2005 and 2016. However, between 2016 and 2021–22 the proportion of women who experienced partner violence decreased from 1.7% in 2016 to 0.9% in 2021–22.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (Australian Government)

Whatever one might think of these figures, there’s little evidence of an increase in male violence (against females), at least here, in this teeny WEIRD nation. So maybe it’s places like Australia, and New Zealand, far from some of the major global threats, slowly building a multi-ethnic culture (largely proof against the massive social divisions stifling the divided ‘USA’), an oasis of 26 million compared to the bonobo oasis of maybe 20 thousand, a region that still likes to think of itself as ‘young and free’, and prepared to experiment with our politics and culture, maybe it’s here that bonobo-style caring-and-sharing behaviour can start to make some headway (but of course even as I write this it strikes me as ridiculous).

The trouble, of course, is that it’s hard to focus on such a possible future without sex rearing its not-so-ugly head. In human culture we’re obsessed with beauty (both male and female) in a positive way (though bad luck if you happen not to be physically attractive), and obsessed with sex in a much more confused but largely negative way (‘licentiousness’, a very human term, is generally condemned in all societies). Do bonobos distinguish between each other in terms of ‘good looks’? If not, when did we, or our ancestors start to do so? There has of course been much talk of ‘sexual selection’ in anthropology, going back to Darwin, but in bonobo society, where female-female sex predominates but sex, generally in the form of mutual masturbation, occurs among and between all age groups and genders, sexual selection (for breeding purposes) would only occasionally operate. And after all, masturbation is about one’s own erogenous zones, which, like being tickled, are best aroused by another, no matter what they look like. Think of a dog masturbating on your leg.

One might argue that religion has a lot to answer for, in so firmly linking sex to shame and transgression, while another might argue, along with Freud, that sexual sublimation was a necessary prerequisite for human civilisation. I’m still trying to work out my own view on this, but I’d surmise that the link between sex and shame existed in humans long before the Abrahamic religions took it to extremes. And unfortunately, much of the online material on our history of sex and shame contains a lot of bollocks, so I’ve reached a dead end there.

So here’s some guesswork. It may have started with the wearing of minimal clothing to protect the reproductive parts, both from damage and from gawkers – out of sight, out of mind. Perhaps this was initiated by females, but more likely (in the case of female genitalia) by males. On this topic I’ve often read claims that pre-agricultural or non-agricultural societies were less patriarchal, and I’ve even adopted that view myself, but I suspect the difference was only in degree, not in kind. 

As to patriarchy itself, consider this. Bonobos and chimps split from each other 2 million years ago, at most. From that time on, bonobos survived and thrived in a relatively circumscribed, densely forested region south of the Congo. Chimps on the other hand are more numerous and wide-ranging (with more varied habitats), and are currently divided into four sub-species, from the west to the east of sub-Saharan Africa, and their number in the wild, though hard to determine with any precision, is generally estimated as about ten times that of bonobos. And all chimps are patriarchal.

The dating of the CHLCA (the last chimpanzee-human common ancestor, and note that bonobos are excluded from this reference) has been a subject of ongoing debate and analysis. Here’s how Wikipedia puts it:

The chimpanzee–human last common ancestor (CHLCA) is the last common ancestor shared by the extant Homo (human) and Pan (chimpanzee and bonobo) genera of Hominini. Estimates of the divergence date vary widely from thirteen to five million years ago.

Obviously, this was before the chimp-bonobo divergence, and considering speculation by anthropologists that bonobo ‘female power’ might be linked to a more frugivorous diet and less of a hunting-killing lifestyle (due to their restriction to an area rich in fruits, nuts, seeds and small game), it seems likely that the CHLCA was already more patriarchally inclined. Consider also that the genus Homo sapiens, long believed to date to no more than 200,000 years ago, and arising in eastern sub-Saharan Africa, has recently been dated to over 300,000 years from remains found in faraway Morocco. That suggests the traversing of vast regions, and a diet much richer in meat than that of bonobos. So, while the hunter-gatherer term has been passionately disputed by some, it’s generally accepted – and it makes sense to me – that there was some division of labour, as implied by the term, and that it would likely be largely gender-based. So, our history, and our ancestry, has been almost entirely patriarchal.

However, this doesn’t define our future. Patriarchy is breaking down in the WEIRD world, albeit slowly. And there are, depressingly, many forces in opposition to female empowerment, especially in the non-WEIRD world. I’ll focus on that in my next post.

Written by stewart henderson

October 24, 2023 at 10:23 am