an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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a bonobo world 61 or so: some more species

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Gibbons – beautiful and imperilled

Canto: So if only we could quicken the modern world, which is so fast leaving behind the benefits of brute strength and embracing the strength of collaborative smarts… Well, maybe not that fast… We’d experience ourselves the loving fruits of bonobo-humanism.

Jacinta: Yeah, too bad. So let’s look more closely at other female dominated species, like elephants. They tend to value experience, so their family units have a female head.

Canto: Except that, they split into female and male groups, don’t they?

Jacinta: Well, they have these female family units, ranging from 3 to 25 members. The males presumably have their groupings, but sometimes they come together to form large herds or herd aggregations – huge numbers. Males can also be solitary, which virtually never happens with females. Of course it’s the females who raise the young, but there can be a lot of group solidarity.

Canto: It seems that the grouping changes more or less perpetually, seasonally, daily, hourly.

Jacinta: Yes, that’s a fission-fusion society, common among primates too – such as Homo sapiens at work, school, uni etc. But over time, the matriarch becomes more important, and presides over a wider network as she gets older. They play follow the leader as she has accumulated knowledge on the best watering holes, the paths of least resistance.

Canto: So elephants have it all worked out. What about those orangutans, what’s going on there?

Jacinta: Well apart from imminent extinction, there’s little to say. They’re solitary, though the Sumatran orang-utans are a little less so than those in Borneo, due to more food being available. The males exhibit hostility to each other and try to avoid each other, though they’re not territorial. They only hang out with females until they get their end away, and the females raise the offspring until they’re old enough to go solo.

Canto: So I wonder why the males are so much bigger than the females?

Jacinta: Yes they can be well over twice the size of the females. I haven’t found any explanation for it. They don’t have a harem of females to prove their rugged manliness. Apparently those big cheek pads help to attract the girls, but their huge bulk seems a bit superfluous.

Canto: Maybe it’s like whales – they grow big because they can. But then, the more you grow, the more you have to eat, presumably. A bit of a mug’s game.

Jacinta: Tell that to the elephants. Or those old ginorosauruses. Basically, if you’re as huge as an elephant, who else is going to attack you or compete with you? Apart from blokes with guns. But we were talking about sex. Or at least gender. Gorillas are proving a lot more complex than originally thought in their social structure – quite multilayered, not quite the chest-beating alpha male and his harem, more like human extended families. Matriarchies within patriarchies perhaps.

Canto: And what about gibbons – just to round out the primates. I know nothing about them.

Jacinta: Well, apparently these South-East Asian apes are monogamous, unlike other primates (except maybe humans, but I’m reluctant to rule on that). In fact only 3% of mammals are monogamous, according to a fact sheet I found (linked below). So that makes for family groups of two to six, just like our nuclear family, unless you’re a Catholic. Gibbons are considered as ‘lesser apes’, family Hylobatidae, unlike we great apes, family Hominidae. Physically, they’re by far the smallest of the apes, depending on particular species, but weighing at most about 12 kgs. These small family groups defend their territory aggressively – none of this fission-fusion stuff. They’re quite good at bipedalism, and present a good model for bipedalism in humans, but they’re also fantastically acrobatic tree-swingers, with the longest arms in relation to their bodies of any of the primates. They also have a nice healthy herbivorous diet.

Canto: They sound like a good human model all-round, and maybe a model for gender equality?

Jacinta: Well, yes, but I do prefer female supremacy. Gibbons are apparently the least studied of all the apes. There are 12 species of them, but many species are very near extinction, a fact not much known by the general public. Orangutans clearly get much more attention.

Canto: Okay so let’s look further afield – before coming back to human cultures to see if there are any matriarchies worth emulating. What more do we know about dolphins and other cetaceans?

Jacinta: Well, as you know dolphins live together in pods of up to 30, though sometimes where there’s an abundant food source they can form massive superpods of over 1000. And as we’ve learned, they engage in sex for fun.

Canto: I suppose also they could form superpods in the face of predators, like schools of fish.

Jacinta: Yes, possibly, though they wouldn’t have too many predators, unlike small fish. Interestingly these superpods can be made up of different cetacean species, so this would obviously benefit the smaller species. And individual dolphins can switch from pod to pod quite freely. Something like fission-fusion, but with greater flexibility. Researchers find this flexibility a sign of high intelligence.

Canto: Ahh, so that accounts for the stupidity of conservatives.

Jacinta: Some dolphin species are a bit more hierarchical than others, and you can see plenty of bite marks on bottlenose dolphins, evidence of fights for dominance.

Canto: And I recall a big hubbub a few years ago when those delightful creatures were discovered torturing and killing some of their own. But then, they are male-dominated, aren’t they?

Jacinta: They are, sadly. Males of all species are largely arseholes (well, not literally). But they certainly engage in a lot of play, I mean dolphins generally. Maybe they’ll evolve one day into a higher form of female-dominated life, but I doubt it. They’ll have to realise how fucked-up they are as a species to do that, like some humans have realised – but not enough.

Canto: Okay, so dolphins are out as a model. What about other cetaceans? I somehow suspect that orcas won’t fit the bill.

Jacinta: Next time. And we’ll look at some human models, if we can find them.


Dolphin Social Structure


Written by stewart henderson

July 22, 2021 at 7:50 pm

a bonobo world 32: bonobos and us

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female-dominated society (male version)

So let me look at the role of the adult female in the bonobo world. Why do they tend to be the bosses, in spite of being smaller on average than the males, and how did this come to be? If we can trace this, maybe we can find out how to live in a more female-dominated, peaceful, integrated and – yes maybe a more loving, even sexy community. 

Frans de Waal has described bonobo society as a gynecocracy, a pre-feminist term which simply means a society or culture governed by women, without going into detail, for example about matrilineal descent or inheritance. De Waal’s findings, mostly drawn from captive bonobos, have been criticised, but further confirmed by wild studies. 

Bonobos are initially hard to distinguish from chimps, from whom they separated, species-wise, 1.5 to 2 million years ago. They’re officially described as more gracile, meaning a little more slender, less robust, but I can’t easily see it myself. What I do notice is their charming middle-parted hairstyle, a la Marcel Proust or Oscar Wilde, which has earned them the title the gay ape. Or should have. Although omnivorous like clothed apes and chimps, they have a more vegetarian diet in practice than the other two, probably because they tend to be more arboreal and inhabit a more restricted area, south of the Congo River. The name bonobo is of course human-created, possibly deriving obscurely from a misspelling of Bolobo, a Congolese town. We don’t know how they refer to themselves. 

There’s been a lot of contentious but fascinating debate about the dating of the last common ancestor between clothed apes and the chimp-bonobo line. For a time the consensus seemed to be converging around a date of 6-7 million years ago, but the doubtless contentious work of Madelaine Bohme, published in a book, Ancient bones (2019)  pushes the date back by a few million years. 

Bonobos weigh on average between 35 and 40 kgs, and, standing, measure about 110cm. The females have prominent boobs compared to other unclothed apes, but nothing a human ape would want to slobber over. Generally they’re more physically divergent than chimps – so you’ve got your plain Janes and your beauty queens, your Adonises and your ghouls. Their bipedalism – or their use of bipedalism – varies with habitat and habituation. In captivity they use it more, as they spend less time in trees. 

It’s argued that bonobos are more peaceful than chimps because they live in a more stable, less threatened environment – the threats to them in the wild are entirely due to clothed, and weaponised, apes, against whom they are, of course, entirely defenceless. Chimps, on the contrary, occupy a wider range, and so, like clothed apes, tend to separate into distinct, competitive communities, who fight over resources and territorial ascendancy. The difficulty here is that, due to the dangerous conditions that have pertained in the Congo for many decades due to long-term clashes and survival struggles among clothed apes, bonobo behaviour has been difficult to analyse outside of zoos. But even under captivity, bonobos clearly behave differently and have a different societal structure than their close cousins the chimps. And this is what should get feminists much more excited than they are, IMHO. 

So, among the higher primates – humans, bonobos, chimps, gorillas and orangutans – bonobos are the only species in which the females have an equal or dominant role in the social organisation. I should perhaps make an exception of orangutans, the most solitary of all the higher primates. For this reason, the question of social hierarchy isn’t so relevant fo this species, though it’s notable that orangutan males are two to three times larger than females. Certainly there’s no question of females being dominant. 

The key, it seems, to the more prominent position of females in bonobo society, is female-female bonding, and female alliances. That’s why, I would argue, nothing is more important to the future of human apes than female alliances. It may take time, but I’m hoping we’ll eventually wake up to the essentiality of this phenomenon, for our continued success. The tight social bonding between bonobo females seems to have had a more general socialising effect, something that human apes, who have become increasingly isolated, competitive, covetous and demoralised by new class divisions, would do well to take note of.

In terms of what we need for a more successful, harmonious future, within and beyond our own species, I’m arguing for female prominence rather than dominance (though I do believe we’d be better off with the latter), and I believe we’re inching – with agonising slowness – in that direction, especially in so-called advanced, more science-based societies. Here’s part of Wikipedia’s most up-to-date account of bonobo social behaviour.

Different bonobo communities vary from being gender-balanced to outright matriarchal. At the top of the hierarchy is a coalition of high-ranking females and males typically headed by an old, experienced matriarch who acts as the decision-maker and leader of the group. Female bonobos typically earn their rank through age, rather than physical intimidation, and top-ranking females will protect immigrant females from male harassment. While bonobos are often called matriarchal, this is a trend rather than an objective fact. It is not unheard of for some communities to have a male who decides where the group travels to, and where they feed. However, these male leaders never harass or coerce the females, and they can choose to ignore his suggestions if they feel like it. Aggressive encounters between males and females are rare, and males are tolerant of infants and juveniles. A male derives his status from the status of his mother. The mother–son bond often stays strong and continues throughout life. While social hierarchies do exist, and although the son of a high ranking female may outrank a lower female, rank plays a less prominent role than in other primate societies. Relationships between different communities are often positive and affiliative, and bonobos are not a territorial species. Bonobos will also share food with others, even unrelated strangers. Bonobos exhibit paedomorphism (retaining infantile physical characteristics and behaviours), which greatly inhibits aggression and enables unfamiliar bonobos to freely mingle and cooperate with each other.  

I quote this passage at length because I feel there are various clues here to creating a more effective human society, on a global scale. Let’s be ambitious. Here are some of the clues:

  • respect for our elders, and keeping them within the community, rather than shuffling them off to nursing homes. This includes allowing them the right to die, when or if they feel their time has come
  • respecting knowledge and experience rather than physical strength or military might. Finding strength in unity of purpose, shared goals and experience in achieving those goals
  • recognising over-arching concerns shared by all nations, whether these be nations with officially-drawn (but often artificial) boundaries or nations of cultural identity – the Kurds, the Pashtuns, the Cherokees, the Pitjantjatjara, etc – while recognising, respecting and learning from different cultural perspectives and methodologies.
  • respecting experience and knowledge over rank, and so creating a greater communal fluidity, and avoiding the accumulation of resources by a small elite group 
  • encouraging play and playfulness, youthful exuberance (especially among the no-longer-youthful) and free expression
  • being generally more forgiving and less punitive

Are such clues to an improved human society dependent on a more prominent role for females in that society?

Do bears shit in the woods? 

Written by stewart henderson

March 16, 2021 at 3:53 pm