a bonobo humanity?

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

Posts Tagged ‘oxytocin

Why are bonobos female dominant? Culture or genetics?

leave a comment »

I was going to entitle this post ‘How did bonobos become female dominant?’, but that assumes that they weren’t always so. To assume makes an ass out of u and me, and I don’t care about u, but I have my pride. And speaking of pride, lions live in those groups (of up to forty, but usually much smaller) and malely dominate, even though the women bring home most of the bacon, chevaline (well, zebra), venison, rattus and the occasional long pork, if they’re lucky.

The point is, we wouldn’t consider this a product of leonine (okay, lion) culture. It’s just what lions – male and female – are genetically programmed to do, just as marmosets, magpies (Australian) and macaroni penguins are programmed to be monogamous (more or less). But considering that separating genetic and cultural evolution in humans is a tricky business, the same would surely go for our closest living relatives. We’re generally convinced that the male dominance in most human history is cultural. I’ve often read the claim that the transition to an agricultural lifestyle in many parts of the world from about 11,000 years ago resulted in a more patriarchal society, with the concept of property, including women, becoming essential to power and dominance. This seems plausible enough, though I would assume that the first claims to property relied primarily on brute strength. Male muscularity is different from that of females, and, more importantly, they’re not hampered by pregnancies and child-rearing. And whereas hunter-gatherers (and it now seems the distinction between these lifestyles is by no means cut and dried) tend to migrate along with food resources, some concept of land ownership, based on kinship over time, clearly developed with an agricultural lifestyle. Again, such a fixed lifestyle would have essentially created the notion of ‘domesticity’, which became associated with the female world. And it seems also have encouraged a degree of polygyny as a sign of male social status. And as we left all this behind, in the WEIRD world so fulsomely described in Joseph Henrich’s book, we’re starting to leave patriarchy behind, though way too slowly for my liking.

So, let’s get back to bonobos. I was struck by an observation I read a while ago in some otherwise forgotten piece on bonobos. Female bonobos are smaller than male bonobos to much the same degree as in chimps and humans, but slightly less so. Considering that the split between bonobos and chimps occurred only between one and two million years ago (and I’d love that margin of error to be narrowed somehow), any reduction in this sexual dimorphism seems significant – and surely genetic. But then genes are modified by environment, and by the behaviour that environment encourages or necessitates. Here’s what I found on a Q&A forum called Worldbuilding:

Bonobos have less dimorphism because they all feed close together and females can almost always protect each other. Male A tries to monopolize female A and gets driven off by female B, C, and D.

Hmmm. There’s something in this, but not quite enough. Why wouldn’t the males bond together to monopolise a particular female? In non-euphemistic human terms this is called pack rape, and it does seem to be confined to humans, though coercive sex, on an individual level, is quite common in other species, and for obvious anatomical reasons it’s always the male who coerces.

This leads to the reasonable conclusion, it seems to me, that for females to have control in the sexual arena – at least in the mammalian world – requires co-operation. And that requires bonding, arguably over and above the bonding associated with ‘girl power’ in WEIRD humans. So here’s how the Max Planck Society explains it:

To clarify why same-sex sexual behavior is so important specifically for female bonobos, we collected behavioral and hormonal data for over a year from all adult members of a habituated bonobo community at the long-term LuiKotale field site in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In addition to our focus on sexual interactions, we identified preferred partners for other social activities such as giving support in conflicts. We also collected urine to measure the hormone oxytocin, which is released in the body in other species after friendly social interactions, including sex, and helps to promote cooperation.

We found that in competitive situations, females preferred to have sex with other females rather than with males. After sex, females often remained closer to each other than did mixed sex pairs, and females had measurable increases in urinary oxytocin following sex with females, but not following sex with males. Among same-sex and opposite-sex pairs, individuals who had more sex also supported each other more often in conflicts, but the majority of these coalitions were formed among females. “It may be that a greater motivation for cooperation among females, mediated physiologically by oxytocin, is the key to understanding how females attain high dominance ranks in bonobo society,” explained co-lead author Martin Surbeck, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and Harvard University.

Now, I know I’ve written about the peptide hormone oxytocin before, somewhere, and suffice to say its role in behaviour and its relation to the general endocrine and neurotransmission systems are extremely complex. Having said that, there will doubtless be strong similarities for its role in humans and in bonobos. And, reflecting on the above quote, what came first, the oxytocin release, or the bonding? Should we encourage more oxytocin doses, or more female-female sex? Doing both sounds like a fine idea.

To tell the truth, I find the willingness to see bonobos as any kind of female model somewhat lacking. They’re ‘jokingly’ referred to as the scandalous primate, and their revolutionary nature is underplayed. Yet their relatively comfortable, largely frugivorous lifestyle in the southern Congo region, where their only real threat is humanity, reflects in miniature the comforts of the WEIRD world, with its hazards of overspending at the supermarket, lazing too long at the beach, or pokies, cocktail bars and ‘Lust-Skin Lounges’ for the true thrill-seekers.

Of course, we got to our ascendant position today through the explorations, calculations and inventions produced by our brains, and the super-brains of our cities, corporations and universities. What can we learn from a bunch of gangly, hairy mutual masturbators dangling about in the Congolese rainforest? Well, we brains and super-brains can still learn a bit more about sharing and caring – as any study of our own history can tell us – and we can certainly learn to stop being so dumb and fucked-up about sexuality, gender and power. Learning lessons from bonobos doesn’t mean getting hairier and improving our brachiation skills, but, well, eating less meat would be a start, given what we know about the environmental damage our current diet is causing. And that’s just one of many lessons we can learn. For me, of course, the most important lesson is the role played by females. How ridiculously long did it take for us – I mean we male humans who have been in control of almost all human societies since those societies came into being – to recognise and admit that females are our equal in every intellectual sphere? This is still unacknowledged in some parts. And although we call this the WEIRD world, the Industrial part of that acronym has lost its machismo essence, a loss Susan Faludi has sensitively analysed in her book Stiffed: the betrayal of the modern man though I think ‘betrayal’ is the wrong word. After all, men were never promised or guaranteed to be breadwinners and heads of households, they took or were given the role through social evolution, and it’s being taken from them, gradually, through the same process.

Finally, getting back to the question in the title, the answer, for Pan paniscus as surely as for Homo sapiens, is culture, which can affect gene expression (epigenetics), which can ultimately affect genetics. I suspect that the slight diminution in the sexual dimorphism between male and female bonobos, over a relatively short period of time, evolutionarily speaking, might, if they’re left to their own devices (which is unlikely, frankly), lead to a size reversal and a world of male sexual servitude. Vive les bonobos, I’d like to be one, for the next few million years!




Joseph Henrich, The WEIRDest people in the world, 2021

Susan Faludi, Stiffed, 1999

Written by stewart henderson

October 18, 2023 at 4:11 pm

leadership, thugs, hormones, bonobos, oxytocin and the future: an interminable conversation 2

leave a comment »

just a bunch of female leaders, circa 2018

Jacinta: So, in pointing out that, according to the democracy index, female leadership and some of the best democracies go together, I didn’t mention the fairly obvious chicken-and-egg issue. Does quality governance lead to more female leadership, or does female leadership lead to better quality governance?

Canto: Isn’t this called a synergistic effect? So it’s not quite chicken-and-egg. Or is it?

Jacinta: No matter, you’re right. The term’s generally used in science – here’s an overly-complicating definition from one scientific paper:

Synergistic effects are nonlinear cumulative effects of two active ingredients with similar or related outcomes of their different activities, or active ingredients with sequential or supplemental activities.

You need to learn that – it’ll be in the test.

Canto: The idea being that female leadership and good governance result in more than the sum of the two parts.

Jacinta: Well, when I wrote about the democracy index, I found that the countries near the top of that index, the best democracies, were top-heavy with female leadership, by which I meant Prime Ministers and Presidents, but I didn’t look more closely at the social make-up of those countries – the predominance of female business leaders, scientific team leaders, the percentage of women in other political or governmental posts and so forth. I made the perhaps reasonable assumption that those countries are also leading the world in every kind of leadership position for women.

Canto: To be fair, researching all those things for each country would be quite a job. We don’t get paid for this shit. I think we can at least assume that those Nordic gals are pretty formidable. Northern European countries feature heavily in the top twenty. Even the UK gets in there.

Jacinta: Australia squeezes into the top ten. And will only improve with the new diversity in government after the recent election. And the most women in our parliamentary history.

Canto: So, as this female empowerment continues apace, at least in the WEIRD world, what will this human world look like, in the 22nd century?

Jacinta: Well, it could be – and this wouldn’t surprise me – that the macho world, run by Mr Pudding, Mr Pingpong and their enablers, and possibly their successors, will do catastrophic things before the turn for the better, because out of catastrophes – the two world wars of the twentieth century, the holocausts in Europe and Africa, Hiroshima and Nagasaki – come rude awakenings and changes for the better – the United Nations and a whole host of NGOs such as Amnesty International (1961), Médecins Sans Frontières (1971) and Human Rights Watch (1978), as well as various international defence and common interest groupings.

Canto: Yes, China and Russia – that’s to say their governments – are the scary ones, simply because they can do the most damage globally, though dog knows many African, Middle Eastern and Asian thugocracies are doing terrible things today.

Jacinta: Getting more female leadership into those countries that everybody pays most attention to – such as those with the greatest destructive ability (the USA, Russia and China) – that would be absolutely key.

Canto: The three countries most fond of interfering with other countries. Funny that.

Jacinta: What’s the point of having all that power if you can’t use it to push others around? Old Drivelmouth in the USA is a perfect example. Not to mention the Taliban, etc etc etc.

Canto: So you want female empowerment so you can push blokes around?

Jacinta: Ah, touché. Yes, there’s some truth to that – after all, we’ve had millennia of being pushed around by blokes. But I don’t want to resurrect the Society for Cutting Up Men, though I must say I’m glad that manifesto was written.

Canto: We need extremists so we can feel superior to them?

Jacinta: Haha well we can just about get rid of men, once we’ve drained them of sperm. Think of black widow spiders and such. There’s a strong argument that the basis of all life is female – turning Aristotle’s views upside-down. Anyway, we’re a long way from taking over the world, unfortunately.

Canto: And such a possible world makes me think of bonobos again, where the male life isn’t too bad at all. If you accept your place.

Jacinta: Would you be happy with that?

Canto: Well, no I wouldn’t be happy to be a bonobo after my life as a human, I’d want to do all the human things – sex of course, but also exploring where we came from, what makes us tick, how the self-animating came from inanimate matter, how the universe came to be, how we can solve all the problems we create for ourselves, and enjoying all the beautiful and amazing things, like birds and bushes, music, the sea breeze, the tastes of various cheeses, a good whisky, laughs with friends and so on. As long as my female overlords allow me these joys – and I know they would – I’d be happy as a bonobo with a perpetual hard-on.

Jacinta: Haha, I’m not sure if that’s the best definition of happiness. The spicy variety is more like it. And of course you’re right, human life is potentially much more varied and complex than bonobo life. The real point is that the potential is more likely to be realised, for more people, with less macho thuggery and more female-led community. And here’s another point: hierarchy isn’t a bad thing, or rather, it’s an unavoidable thing, because we’ll never be equal in skills and knowledge, due to age, experience and upbringing. And there will always be challenges to existing hierarchies, and changes to them. It’s a matter of how we manage those changes, and females are generally better at that. As to why, that’s a good question. Maybe it’s hormonal. In any case, that’s a generalisation, which admits of exceptions.

Canto: But those hierarchies are much harder to shift in those complex communities called nations, where there are entrenched classes, such as the Party in China, or the Military in Burma, or the Theocracy in Iran, or the Billionaire CEOs in the USA. These people tend to live as far from the great unwashed as possible, often in gated communities or their equivalents, even on physically Higher Ground, as Robert Sapolsky and others have noted.

Jacinta: Yes, that’s a good point. I was thinking recently of Nixon and his crimes, and of the USA’s ludicrous and shocking Presidential pardoning system, exposed even more in recent times. Nixon was merely ‘persuaded’ to resign, and would have spent his retirement in one of those gated communities, full of backslapping commiserators, and I have few expectations of Trump experiencing anything worse. Anyway, what we need is a society, and a political system, in which this kind of scum doesn’t rise to the top in the first place. I wonder if there have ever been any brutish alpha females in the bonobo world. It’s unlikely, but there may have been the odd one-off.

Canto: You mentioned hormones. You know, I’ve never really understood what they are. I recall Sapolsky warning us against over-simplifying – assuming that testosterone is the male hormone or the aggression hormone, and that serotonin is the relaxing hormone, mostly associated with females…

Jacinta: Serotonin’s a neurotransmitter. You might be thinking of oxytocin, which is both a neurotransmitter and a hormone, apparently. Or, more likely, oestrogen?

Canto: Yes, I’ve heard of them all, but I don’t know what basket to put them in. Is a neurotransmitter a wave or a particle? Are hormones like cells, or molecules of some kind? Amino acid chains, like so much else in the body? We should do a whole self-educating conversation on that topic.

Jacinta; Absolutely. Anyway, we need more of an oxytocin-soaked society – without the downsides of drug induction, and as long as it doesn’t interfere with our sciencey rationality too much. Here’s something from a typical popular medical website about oxytocin:

Oxytocin is a hormone and a neurotransmitter that is involved in childbirth and breast-feeding. It is also associated with empathy, trust, sexual activity, and relationship-building. It is sometimes referred to as the “love hormone,” because levels of oxytocin increase during hugging and orgasm. It may also have benefits as a treatment for a number of conditions, including depression, anxiety, and intestinal problems.

Canto: Hmmm, doesn’t it just immediately make you think of bonobos? I bet they have no problems with their intestines.

Jacinta: Well it does make me fantasise about a touch of biochemical engineering, just to help the feminising process along. Whadya reckon?

Canto: Interesting. That’s for a future conversation.



Melvin Konner, Women after all: sex, evolution and the end of male supremacy, 2015

Robert Sapolsky, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst, 2018



Written by stewart henderson

July 31, 2022 at 10:12 pm