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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