Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Hippie Bonobos and Redneck Chimps?

The most recent issue of the New Yorker reveals that the bonobo, otherwise known as the "pygmy chimp," has developed a bit of a cultish pop phenomenon, of the sort previously reserved for dolphins. According to pop primatology, bonobos are a matriarchal species far more inclined to non-reproductive orgiastic screwing, including oral sex and lesbian "genito-genital rubbing," and far less inclined to male-dominated harem behavior and genocidal wars than both humans and their close chimpanzee cousins. Consequently these bonobistas want humans to be more bonobo-like, and less chimp-like, in our behavior. The New Yorker gives us a helpful visual aid, a picture of two bonobos blissfully shtupping their brains out. Take that, Jane Goodall!

Not surprisingly, it turns out that this picture is oversimplified. It turns out that bonobos, which were only recognized as a seperate species in the last century, have been studied very little in the wild. That's not surprising, given that they live in the middle of the Congo, which has been roiled by brutal civil war over much of the past decade. Most of the observations that lead to the pop image of bonobos comes from the observation of a Dutch scientist Frans de Waal, which was done entirely with captive bonobos.

The article's author, Ian Parker, follows a German bonobo expert named Gottfried Hohmann on a visit to the Congo for an excursion to observe th bonobos in the wild. Hohmann, who has observed the apes for many years, dispels some of the myths. For one thing, though it is true that the girls have the upper hand in the bonobo world, they are more like Margaret Thatcher than Nancy Pelosi. They have a habit of chewing off males' fingers and toes, and occasionally gang up on a less popular fellow and kill him. Suspected infanticide has even been observed. The bonobos hunt small antelope just like the chimps do, and kill the poor critters by slowly devouring the entrails of the living animal while it twitches in misery. And in the wild, having better things to do perhaps, they don't get it on like they do in the zoo. Hohmann even argues that the girls' "g-g rubbing" may not be sexual, which seems a stretch to me. I suggest testing this by seeing how the apes react to a few episodes of The L Word.

Nevertheless, even Hohmann seems to agree that the bonobos are less violent and factional than chimpanzees. He seems to be working toward a theory that both humans and chimpanzees split off from a more bonobo-like ancestor, adopting a more male-dominated, agressive attitude as they came out of the bountiful forests to the sparer savannahs.

The socio-political implications of this are fascinating. But whatever you do, please please don't show a copy of this article to David Brooks. He's mangled child psychology badly enough already.

1 comment:

Penelope said...

That's very interesting. I'm always thrilled to hear about other animals which veer from the norm of eating, sleeping, hunting, grooming, and humping for reproductive purposes.

Perhaps we could teach them to type as well? They could also write blogs. I can't imagine what they'd say. . .