"The Make Love, Not War Species"
Bonobos ("pygmy chimpanzees") are said to be our closest living animal relatives. They're famous for their polyamorous lifestyle that tends to create peace among themselves in contrast to the supposedly more possessive and war-prone classical chimpanzees, the other contenders for our closest living relatives.
Eerily, much of human nature is reflected in each species. Some polyfolks say a shift toward more bonobo-like culture will be essential for Homo sapiens' long-term survival, now that our war-making tools have evolved from sticks to nuclear weapons with no end in sight. Others deride this kind of save-the-world thinking based on an idealized vision of apes. But personally, after years of pondering it, I've decided that it's probably correct. What we polys are up to when we're at our best is damn important.
And, as Paul Tillich said, "There were only a few thousand people in all Europe who brought about the Renaissance."
National Public Radio did a nice report last night (July 10, 2006) on the bonobos themselves, their matriarchal ways, and efforts to ensure their own survival:
These peace-loving apes live in matriarchal societies and use sex to deal with competition and anger. They reside only in a very small area of forest below the Congo River in Africa and they've been at risk in recent years because of civil unrest, logging, and hunting. The Bonobo Conservation Initiative is creating a refuge for them called the Bonobo Peace Forest. Living on Earth explores the unconventional society of the bonobo, and what it will take to save this make-love-not-war species.
Read the transcript, or listen to the audio. And do kick in a few bucks to the Bonobo Conservation Initiative.
Update August 5, 2007: The New Yorker for July 30, 2007, has a long article on bonobo research today including our very spotty knowledge of their folkways in the wild as opposed to in captivity, and their sometimes darker, brutal behaviors that run counter to the exaggerated happy stereotype.
Update April 13, 2008: Amazingly, things are looking up for the bonobos' survival, according to a long article in Time magazine (April 10, 2008). Thank you to those who donated to the Bonobo Conservation Initiative.
...If the new model of conservation is so smart, why did it take bonobos to push us there? There's no denying that human beings are powerfully drawn to other high primates and to bonobos perhaps most of all. Depending on which lab report you use, bonobos vie with chimpanzees for the title of man's closest relative, with a 98.4%-to-98.6% DNA match. As a result, says Coxe, understanding the bonobo is "fundamental to our understanding of ourselves."
Still, it was an understanding we came to late. Bonobos were recognized as a separate species only in 1933, less because of their subtle physical distinctions than because of their peaceable, highly sexual ways. The bonobos' best-known champion is Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University. De Waal argues that bonobos overturn established, bloody notions of the origins of man. So popular has this idea become that for humans, bonobos are now cultural and commercial darlings. A raw vegetarian restaurant in New York City calls itself Bonobo's. California sex therapist Susan Block has developed a conflict-resolution protocol dubbed the Bonobo Way. (Sample dictum: "You can't very well fight a war while you're having an orgasm.") But do bonobos deserve their gentle rep?
In a July 2007 article in the New Yorker, writer Ian Parker reported a bonobo pack aggressively pursuing a baby duiker a kind of small antelope. Coxe admits that her Kokolopori researchers reported troubling behavior in one bonobo group after a female gave birth to a stillborn baby. "The other adults let her keep the dead baby for a day," she says. "Then they ate it." These reports have given rise to a prickly cultural debate, with the unknowing bonobos being recruited into America's political wars. bonobos' genteel qualities may be overstated, said a headline in the Wall Street Journal after Parker's piece appeared. De Waal shot back in eSkeptic magazine, accusing Parker of being a "revisionist." Says Coxe: "The right wing doesn't like bonobos, but open-minded liberals love them."
On my second day in the forest, a group of 21 bonobos, oblivious to the political silliness an ocean away, oblige the liberals by showing us their gentler side. A baby kisses its mother. A group of females shoo an unpopular male away with matriarchal authority. A bonobo couple, apparently enjoying a kind of ape honeymoon, share figs, nuts and shoots and hang out in the trees with moonfaced expressions before copulating twice high up in the canopy.
The truth is, of course, that 1.4% to 1.6% of DNA and millions of years of evolution equals an evolutionary ocean. Even the most liberated humans would hesitate to have sex in front of complete strangers. And bonobos aren't likely to harness fire or invent the wheel or the Internet soon. Still, for too long the study of nature has been the study of zero-sum savagery a universal bloodlust that allows us to shrug at our own brutality, reckoning that mere animals like us can hardly be expected to do better. Discovering such close genetic cousins who behave themselves so well even sometimes ought to give us pause. There are already plenty of reasons to save the Congo Basin, but teaching the highest species on the planet the value of a little peace and love is one more very good one.