Suggested reading: The gendered ape–Those embarrassing bonobos!

by Frans de Waal

It’s not always easy to talk about bonobos at academic gatherings. There is no issue with fellow primatologists, who are used to straightforward descriptions of sexual behavior and know the recent evidence. But it’s different with people outside my field, such as anthropologists, philosophers, or psychologists. They become fidgety, scratch their heads, snicker, or adopt a puzzled look. Why do bonobos stump them?

One reason for the discomfort is excessive shyness about erotic behavior, which bonobos exhibit in all positions that we can imagine, and even some that we can’t. Moreover, these apes do it in all partner combinations. People assume that animals use sex only for reproduction, but I estimate that three quarters of bonobo sex has nothing to do with it. … (continue at 3QuarksDaily)

Published by Massimo

Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at and He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

11 thoughts on “Suggested reading: The gendered ape–Those embarrassing bonobos!

  1. All of this presents a huge contrast with chimpanzees, which know only various degrees of hostility between communities.

    That sounds like a good description of human primate history.

    Until now, however, there is not a single observation of one bonobo killing another, neither in captivity nor in the wild.

    That sounds completely unlike us.

    Bonobos may be genetically equally close to us as chimpanzees, but anatomically they are more like us.

    With their long legs and frequent upright gait, however, bonobos resemble our immediate ancestors more than any other living ape.

    So behaviour tells one story and appearance tells another. But what is the relevance of the Bononos since our behaviour is the determining factor?

    I have seen many admiring references to Bonobo behaviour, as if their polyamorous, free for all sex life represented the the most desirable goal we could strive for. But is that really the case?

    I suggest not. Human primate society is based on intensely cooperative, collaborative specialisation that has been stunningly successful. Trust is what makes this possible, consequently we have developed a deep repertoire of trust enhancing mechanisms. I believe that virtuous behaviour(in the classical sense) is nothing more than an elaborate mechanism for displaying trustworthiness and detecting trustworthiness. It has made it possible for us to develop the extensive networks of trust that enable our deep collaborative specialisation. At the very heart of this network of trust is the strong, lifetime bonding of a couple. This can be seen in the deep trauma that almost always follows on the infidelity of one side. The depth of the trauma is illustrative of the foundational importance of trust.

    In answer to Frans De Waal I would say that what happens between the eyes has more relevance than what happens between the legs(however desirable that may be).

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    1. I disagree. Bonobos’ relationships are, in fact, based on building trust. Chimpanzees are the least trustworthy of primates. So I’m betting on the bonobos. Besides, what’s objectionable about making love rather than war? ;-)

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  2. Massimo,
    I disagree.

    Yes, of course. I take that for granted. But can you be more specific by quoting my words and making an argument?

    Chimpanzees are the least trustworthy of primates. So I’m betting on the bonobos

    Since we are neither chimpanzees nor bonobos I don’t see how that advances the argument. We have followed a unique evolutionary trajectory and we must deal with it on its own merits. Of course you may be saying that you admire bonobos more than chimpanzees. Which is perfectly fine. After all I admire Jack Russel terriers more than Golden Labradors.

    what’s objectionable about making love rather than war?

    That slogan from the Hippy era has long legs. It is worth a discussion on its own merits but I fail to see it as a reply to my own argument since I am not advancing an argument for war. Quite the opposite in fact. I devoted quite a few words to advancing the case for cooperative, collaborative specialisation based on a deep network of trust. That is certainly not making an argument for war so I fail to see your quote as being apposite.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Peter, but your argument for cooperation doesn’t actually fit your idea that we are more similar to chimpanzees than bonobos. We probably share traits with both, as we have a common ancestor that is equidistant from both.

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  3. We probably share traits with both, as we have a common ancestor that is equidistant from both.

    I agree. And yet we are also indubitably a warrior species and that seems to put us closer to chimpanzees. We are moving on a trajectory towards bonobos away from our warrior like traits. Why should that be? Perhaps the genetic basis for these traits are dissipating because they no longer confer an advantage? I am sure that is part of the answer. But that is a slow change and we are changing much faster than that. I think the answer is that the change is driven by cognitive/cultural factors centering on trust. This has conferred a large advantage, resulting in rapid changes much greater than can be achieved by genetic drift.

    However change driven by cognitive/cultural factors is fragile and unstable because it is working against the remnants of our warrior like traits. We are changing faster than our genes. We deal with this fragility and instability by putting in place extensive institutions whose purpose is to stabilize and maintain our gains against our nature. Recent history shows how unstable this arrangement can be.

    I said above that we are moving on a trajectory towards Bonobos but I think that is a simplification because it works against our strong needs for trust. The dominant change, I think, is a move towards a different kind of love. What is remarkable about us(and is wholly unprecedented) is our strong love for Truth, Beauty, Goodness and Excellence. This is a more abstract love which is not explainable in any simple way. It may be abstract yet we all feel the tug of this love in a strong way. I cannot think of a single person that I know who could honestly claim that he did not love Truth, Beauty, Goodness and Excellence(yes, I am deliberately capitalizing the terms for emphasis). This is something that cannot be explained by appealing to a bonobo explanation since there is nothing in their experience that even remotely resembles it..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with much of what you say, except that I don’t think there is much of a basis for saying that we are closer to either the bonobos or the chimpanzees. That’s a hard empirical question to answer, and for my part I’ll leave it to pros like De Waal.

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  4. In summary then(I think), we are a species experiencing rapid change away from Chimpanzee-like traits and the change is outpacing genetic drift. This has the attendant problems of instability and fragility. The change is being driven by the large advantages conferred by trust based specialization. At the same time we have uncovered in ourselves a strong love for truth, beauty, goodness and excellence. This love is altering the the character of trust based specialization and reinforcing it.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Of course, in terms of evolutionary time, we are at exactly the same distance from bonobos as we are from chimps. But for what it’s worth, since morphology and behaviour tend to co-evolve, the fact that our morphology is closer to bonobos than to chimps mildly suggests that we may also be closer to them in in behaviour, to the extent that that is genetically determined.

    But I agree with Peter Smith that our extreme dependence on forming trust circles based on highly complex indicators is a major complicating factor, only possible in a species capable of complex thought, and favouring in-group altruism on the one hand but xenophobia on the other.

    In the face of this situation, both Darwin and the Stoics invite us to use our intellects to expand the circle of our natural sympathies

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