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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