a bonobo humanity?

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

Posts Tagged ‘polygyny

the big issue: monogamy, polygyny and bonoboism

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I think it’s time we moved in together, raised a family of our own you and me. That’s the way I’ve always heard it should be…

Jacob Brackman/Carly Simon

And if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

When I was a young boy, my Mama said to me, ‘There’s only one girl in the world for you, and she probably lives in Tahiti’

Reckless Eric

glory days

Just the other day, a young woman very close to me was in a quandary about her boyfriend – though ‘quandary’ is too mild a word. She was very upset about what might be a permanent break-up. As part of their intimate chit-chat, he responded, presumably to her love declaration, with this remark: ‘I love you, but I’m not in love with you’.

Of course this response can hardly cover the whole nature of their relationship, but the fact that it was seen as less than satisfactory, indeed jeopardising the relationship’s future, has given me much food for thought – or rather, it has brought to mind issues that have obsessed me for a lifetime, an obsession that helps to explain my excitement at discovering, nearly four decades ago, bonobo culture.

I’m referring here to monogamy, and romantic love, modes of life and feeling that are essentially foreign to my favourite, and very loving, primate cousins.

It’s fascinatingly coincidental that, just as I found myself to be a sounding-board for my young friend, whom I dearly love, I’ve been reading Joseph Henrich’s The Weirdest people in the world: how the West became psychologically peculiar and particularly prosperous, which deals with the cultural processes that broke down kinship connections and marriages (sororate and levirate), including polygynous marriages for elite males, in different global regions. This dissolution of long-standing kinship traditions was effected, not necessarily deliberately, through the edicts of the Church (Catholic) over many centuries in Western Europe, and was replaced by connections, including marriages, based on individual choice, shared interests and psychological compatibility. Other influences in other regions, such as China, had similar kinship-dissolving effects, though intensities have differed.

All of these transformations and modifications, though, have been within male-dominated societies. And, in the history we know most about, from the beginnings of agricultural society, there have been precious few female-dominated ones. And monogamy has been the norm, even if hedged around by clan and kinship expectations. Henrich puts it this way, while incidentally making perhaps the only reference to bonobos in his book:

From among our closest evolutionary relatives – apes and monkeys – guess how many species both live in large groups like Homo sapiens and have only monogamous pair bonding?

That’s right, zero. No group-living primates have the non-cultural equivalent of monogamous marriage. Based on the sex lives of our two closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, the ancestor we share with these apes was probably highly promiscuous and likely didn’t form pair bonds at all, let alone enduring, monogamous pair bonds. Nevertheless, since we diverged from our ape cousins, our species has evolved a specialised psychological suite – our pair-bonding psychology – that can foster strong emotional bonds between mates that remain stable for long enough to encourage men to invest in their mate’s children. This pair bonding psychology provides the innate anchor for marital institutions. However the nature of this anchor biases marital institutions toward polygynous pair bonding. In contrast, our innate mating psychology doesn’t usually favour widespread polyandrous mean marriage – that’s one wife with multiple husbands – although there are good evolutionary reasons to expect this to pop up at low frequencies in societies lacking prohibitions against it.

J Henrich, The Weirdest people in the world, pp 258-9

Now, I’m a wee bit miffed here that bonobos etc are described as ‘non-cultural’, though of course they don’t have marriage, or language, or religion, quite. But the emergence of patriarchy, or possibly its intensifying as we trace our ancestry back to the CHLCA (chimp-human last common ancestor) is still something of a mystery. Henrich’s analysis really only takes us back several millennia, at the very most. Bonobos are, in a sense, hunter-gatherers, and their diet has never included large game, so the relatively rare hunting events would’ve involved speed and dexterity more than brute strength. Bonobo matriarchy, if that’s what it is, appears to be an outcome of the female-female bonding that arguably comes more naturally to human females than to males.

The concept of property is key here. Think of the commandment – don’t covet your neighbour’s wife, or any other property belonging to him. Property emerged from the depths of time as very much a male thing – and so, polygyny as a status symbol. Henrich has an argument as to why polyandry never became much of a thing:

Our ‘polygyny bias’ arises in part from fundamental asymmetries in human reproductive biology. Over our evolutionary history, the more mates a man had, the greater his reproduction, or what biologists call his ‘fitness’. By contrast, for women, simply having more mates didn’t directly translate into greater reproduction or higher fitness. This is because, unlike men, women necessarily had to carry their own foetuses, nurse their own infants, and care for their toddlers. Given the immense input needed to rear human children compared to other mammals, an aspiring human mother required help, protection, and resources like food, clothing, shelter, and cultural know-how. One way to obtain some of this help was to form a pair bond with the most capable, resource full, and highest status man she could find by making clear to him that her babies would be his babies. The greater his paternal confidence, the more willing he was to invest time, effort, and energy in providing for her and her children. Unlike his wife, however, our new husband could ‘run in parallel’ by forming additional pair-bonds with other women. While his new wife was pregnant or nursing, he could be ‘working’ on conceiving another child with his second or third wife (and so on, with additional wives).

J Henrich, The Weirdest people in the world, p 259

Henrich goes on to argue for the unsustainability of polygyny due to the lack of wives or breeding partners for low-status males in an increasingly hierarchical social system, but I should note here that bonobos have managed to develop a female-dominant culture despite all the issues of mothering, or most of the issues, faced by humans. Of course, they don’t have to worry about clothing, and shelter is less of a problem. ‘Cultural know-how’ is of course matched to species complexity – how to survive and thrive in their particular social world. In a talk given at Harvard, the linguist Daniel Everett defined culture thus (quoting from his own 2016 formulation):

Culture is an abstract network shaping and connecting social roles, hierarchically structured knowledge domains, and ranked values. Culture is only found in the bodies (the brain is part of the body) and behaviour of its members.

He also states in his talk that culture is always changing, and of course he’s talking about human culture. And this raises again the question of bonobo (or cetacean, or corvid) ‘culture’. We see our culture changing generationally – that’s to say, before or very eyes – but only a few centuries ago, as David Deutsch points out in The beginning of infinity, human culture, even in the WEIRD world, was much more static, and, although we don’t have clear evidence, it seems that Australian indigenous culture maintained itself largely unchanged for tens of millennia.

So, the way culture works depends a lot on context, and rapidity of change has much to do with interaction between and across cultures, due not just to immigration but, perhaps more importantly, to the rapid technological connections across the globe that have occurred since the middle of the 20th century,

Let me give you some of my personal story as an example. In the mid-sixties, as a kid of around ten, I was on a backyard swing listening to the radio blasting out, one after another, the five or so songs, all by the Beatles, that were topping the charts, in Australia and the other side of the world, at the time. I was thinking how vital and exciting those songs seemed to me in comparison to the hymns we were asked to sing at Sunday School. Over the next few years, the Beatles exchanged their matching suits and mop haircuts for long, wild hair, colourful eastern silks, beads and ‘love, man’. The ‘hippie generation’ seemed to explode into life. Free love and flower power, vaguely defined, were being spruiked everywhere, and songs referencing revolution – by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Thunderclap Newman, Barry McGuire and others – all gave the impression of a world turning upside-down. Caught up in the zeitgeist, I let my hair grow as long as it could, wore my older sister’s cast-off blouses and jackets, became a massive Bowie fan and reflected obsessively on gender-bending, marriage and monogamy.

The marriage and monogamy issues exercised me most, as my parents, it seemed, had trapped themselves in a loveless marriage which only came to an end shortly after I left home at eighteen. And because my mother was very much the head of our household, and because my sister was as strong-willed as my mother, feminism was also a major theme. We lived in a household full of books, with a library just down the road, so I was able to escape into a less fraught intellectual world. One book that greatly exercised me was Bruno Bettelheim’s The Children of the Dream, about the Jewish kibbutz system. While I was too young to understand much of the analysis, the very fact that there was a radical alternative to my form of upbringing hugely exercised me. I imagined the kibbutz system to be something like bonoboism long before I’d ever heard of those treasured apes.

Also, because our family had moved to Australia from Scotland when I was five, we’d pretty well dispensed with broader kinship connections, making us particularly WEIRD. It was all about ‘elective affinities’, as Goethe put it, and in fact I read his book of that title as a young person, probably due to the WEIRD title, though I found the content rather baffling. I was trying to tease out the differences between sexual attraction, love, and affinity, if they existed. I recall reading, I think in Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, of this made-up love obsession which was enough to drive us mad. I had felt it myself of course. How could I feel so intensely about this girl I barely knew? How could a way of walking, a flicker of hands, make me feel that some force had reached into my heart and squeezed it, making me stagger and look round to see if anyone had noticed? And then later I learned of hormones – phenylethylamine and cortisol running wild, triggering the release of dopamine and norepinephrine, toxins of hope and their antidotes – all the result of unbidden thought, or something like…

Then of course, the world must be peopled, and we’ve done an all too brilliant job at that. As Henrich’s research indicates, with the agricultural revolution more or less complete in many parts of the human world around 8,000 years ago, property and its associated prestige led to an increasingly hierarchical, and patriarchal society – mostly monogamous, but then nothing displays male power more than possession of a bevy of the brightest and most beautiful as breeding partners. It’s worth noting just how extreme this ‘sexual prestige’ system became in some parts of the world. Here’s Henrich again:

In the South Pacific at the time of European contact, Tongan chiefs had a few high-ranking wives, who helped solidify alliances with other powerful families, and a few hundred secondary wives. In Africa, Ashante and Zulu kings each had 1000 or more wives. However, these are just the paramount chiefs or kings; there was usually a fleet of lesser elites who maintained smaller harems for themselves. Zande kings, for example each had more than 500 wives, but their chiefs also each maintained about 30 or 40 wives, and sometimes as many as 100. In Asia, things were even more extreme: medieval Khmer kings in Cambodia possessed five elite wives and several thousand secondary wives who were themselves graded into various classes…

J Henrich, The Weirdest people in the world, p 261

And so on. However, this kind of extreme, and graded, polygyny was barely sustainable as it led to a multitude of aggrieved, partnerless males at the bottom of the pyramid, ripening for rebellion. The ‘European contact’ Henrich mentions here would’ve added to the pressures on this ultra-polygynous situation. These European colonisers, or conquerors, would’ve been keen to impose the True Religion wherever they went, and with it the proto-WEIRD values of the time. Today, in post-colonial Africa and Asia, there is a fluctuating and often awkward and barely workable mix of WEIRD and clan-based values and lifestyles, which likely contribute to the political instability we often find in these regions.

Meanwhile, in more established WEIRD nations, nothing is static. Only a little over a century ago, no woman could vote in any ‘democratic’ country, of which there were very few in any case. Female political leaders are still rare, though a little less rare in the last fifty years than the previous fifty. Perhaps the biggest change in relatively recent times has been in female education and employment, which is slowly changing the scientific, legal and business landscape. Arguably women, by and large (there are plenty of exceptions), are less interested in hierarchical than collaborative enterprises, and their growing input will lead to a gradual improvement in political decision-making, international relations and less adversarial approaches to business and the law…

And as for monogamy – okay, ‘free love’ hasn’t taken off as I thought it might, but at the same time, things aren’t as they were in the fifties and before. Single parenthood has been on the rise for decades in the WEIRD world, for males as well as for females, and though the supports available aren’t quite as nurturing as those available for bonobos, they’re enough to enable a ‘normal’, stigma-free childhood. The concept of illegitimate children is more or less dead, and maybe one day the notion of illegitimate immigrants will go the same way. Passports and visas are a much more recent phenomenon than many people realise, and they may turn out to be fleeting in the long run, especially with the advent of climate migration in the now foreseeable future. All of this, and a recognition that we’re all in this together as a culpable species, will be better facilitated by a more caring, less combative attitude to our fellows, human and non-human.

Taken all in all, women are the better angels of our human nature. Yes, we’ve moved very very far from our bonobo cousins, and we regularly and even obsessively pat ourselves on the back for that. But all of our best instincts tell us that collaboration, mutual appreciation, and recognition of ourselves in others, including other species, are key, not to just our survival, but to our thriving in a richer, more sustainable environment.


Joseph Henrich, The Weirdest people in the world: how the West became psychologically peculiar and particularly prosperous, 2020

Bruno Bettelheim,The children of the dream, 1970

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from the underground, 1864

Gaia Vince, Nomad century, 2021

Written by stewart henderson

September 18, 2023 at 9:22 am