Humans could do worst than living like bonobos

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Andy DunnDec 5, 2015 · 6 min read

Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man. — Gandhi

Non-violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages. — Edison

Bonobos are not monkeys! Bonobos are apes. They also may point the way for humanity’s future, but we’ve got a bit to learn before going that far.

First: what is the difference between an ape and a monkey?

Apes don’t have tails, they have big brains, they are really smart. A bonobo named Kanzi knows 400 words by sign language. Two words he knows are slow and lettuce. When he eats kale, he put the words together, and describes it as slow lettuce, presumably because it takes longer to chew.

There are five kinds of great apes: bonobos, chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, and the one which people always think of last:


How do you say bonobos? Like this:

Bonobos are known for their myriad forms of sexual behavior and the way they use sex to diffuse tension and form social bonds. Bonobos are comfortable being gay or bisexual, which we are learning to do as well — at long last — as a species. Bonobos exhibit play deep into adulthood. Some say they are the only males, other than humans, who play with their progeny. This is not too surprising, given that they share 98.7% of DNA with us.

The chimpanzee is the closest cousin of the bonobo, and share this same percentage of DNA with humans. Bonobos, humans and chimps are polyamorous apes, versus the polygamist gorillas or the more monogamous gibbon — a “lesser” ape, though it does seem mean to say that. For an analysis of comparative great ape sexuality, dig into Christopher Ryan’s Sex at Dawn, where you will learn fun facts like how the relative weight of male to female (sexual dimorphism) can be an indicator of the sexuality of the species. Chimps, bonobos and humans all have a 1.6x factor in male to female weight, which lends itself to polyamorous relations; the polygamist gorillas are more like 2x — half the way to the elephant seal at 4-5x, the ultimate ladies’ man. If humans were more more like 1x, closer to gibbons, maybe we wouldn’t need feminism!

For all their similarities, humans and chimps have violent conflict, but bonobos don’t. Yet bonobos and chimps are virtually identical genetically. Thanks to the Congo River, they only speciated and “split apart” about 2 millions years ago — while humans, chimps, and bonobos all share a common ancestor dating to 6 million years ago.

How did bonobos “break” the cycle of violence?

It’s not a settled scientific matter, but part of the story — in addition to the use of sex as a means of peace-making — is that bonobos have matriarchal societies where all individuals, across both genders, exhibit higher levels of empathy. “Put the women in charge, and the men learn to behave.” This converges with my own life experience, where the women rule the roost. My dad may be an equal partner, but even my niece knows my mom is the boss.

I didn’t fully appreciate how much chimps and bonobos differ until I read Frans de Waal. His book Chimpanzee Politics unfolds like Hamlet or Macbeth. The stories of the #1 male chimp dropping down to #3, and then teaming up with the still #2 male chimp to topple the duped new #1 is worthy of the best drama in human politics. Supposedly, in a chimpanzee leadership ouster, the toppling male chimps might eat off the testicles of the losing chimp, stuff them in his mouth, and the whole tribe of chimps wake up to this new reality, screaming. When politics meets violence, male aggression can become downright demonic. Just read the news.

My own hope is that as a human species we are on a long journey of evolution toward increasingly more tolerant and nonviolent behavior. While the availability bias of recent bad news in the world can be depressing, the longitudinal data suggests we are on the right track over the millennia. This depends on how you process the 20th century, during which we killed 200 million of our own kind. If you view it optimistically, as Steven Pinker does in The Better Angels of Our Nature, you will see an awful first half where many died protecting the future of human freedom, and a second half where the gains of that freedom began to be realized. I believe it’s not a coincidence that we also saw civil rights emerge in that second half, increasing equality for women globally, and the beginnings of a shift in attitudes toward LGBT human beings which has real definitive progress only recently.

The direction of things may be that we are valuing our empathy more highly and harnessing our aggression more thoughtfully. Sports, business and politics are better ways for humans of both genders to express aggression and the spirit of competition than violence. I believe the elevation of females to a position of true peers as males, and maybe more, is the single most important change in the history of human society. Most of its fruits remain in front of us. When it comes to feminism and to defeating ideologies that would seek to limit half of our population, we as men must all step up if we want to unlock this next step in evolution of humankind. My own belief is all men should be feminists, and with enthusiasm. It only makes “our world” better. In short, we need to move from male humans acting like male chimps, to male humans being like male bonobos. I call this journey “from chimps to bonobos: the future of mankind,” though maybe I go too far.

Regardless of whether you agree with this trajectory or not, we have much to learn from the life “philosophy” of the bonobos, from make love not war to put the ladies in charge. Of all the great apes, bonobos are ones we should be talking about the most, yet about which we say the least. The irony is these nonviolent apes live in a country — the Democratic Republic of Congo — where 5.4 million people have died since 1998, by far the deadliest violent conflict since World War II. Hunted for bushmeat in a country itself ravaged and decimated by human war: what are the odds of that cruel twist of fate for the peace-loving bonobos? What clearer wake-up call do we need?

Bonobos are a beacon for a more nonviolent future for humanity. Through this lens, the conservation of these increasingly endangered animals takes on an even more acute purpose. The survival of bonobos is not just for them, it’s for us: a reminder that in our nature, the forces that compel us toward violence can be tamed, and a more nonviolent future awaits, if only we are willing to fight for it. Pun intended.

The evolution of humankind awaits.