"An Unlikely Refuge for Hippie Apes"
If you're up on poly topics, you've probably read about the bonobos ("pygmy chimpanzees"), so you know why this week's Time magazine would devote four pages to a project that might actually save them from extinction.
Bonobos are said to be our closest living animal relatives. They're famous for their polyamorous lifestyle that seems to actively promote conflict resolution and, sometimes, a culture of kindness and compassion in contrast to the supposedly more possessive and war-making classical chimpanzees, the other contenders for our closest living relatives.
Eerily, much of human nature is reflected in both species. Some polyfolks argue that 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 world-enders. Others scoff at this kind of thinking based on oversimplified views of apes.
Personally, after years of reading and pondering about it, I've decided that the bonobo analogy is apt. What we polys are up to when we're at our best is damn important, maybe more so in the long run than we'll ever know.
Heck, as Paul Tillich said, "There were only a few thousand people in all Europe who brought about the Renaissance."
From the Time article (April 10, 2008):
...If the new model of conservation [based on benefiting the local people, not just the animals] 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.
Read the whole article.
You might want to contribute a few bucks to the Bonobo Conservation Initiative.
Here is Ian Parker's New Yorker article referred to above (July 30, 2007). It points up the bonobos' sometimes darker, brutal behaviors (at least in captivity) that run counter to the exaggerated happy stereotype. Sometimes these guys are... well... animals.
And here is Frans de Waal's reply to Parker's article, in eSkeptic (scroll down a bit).