Bonobos are awesome. As closely related to us phylogenetically as our very violent cousins the chimpanzees, bonobos exist in refreshingly peaceful social groups. Those groups are dominated by females, although there is some dispute as to whether they are strictly matriarchal.
The status of males in bonobo communities is related to the status of their mothers, and the status of females is generated by the relationship of females one to another. The mechanisms of status in their society are based on cooperation with regards to food, grooming, and casual sex and sex play, including both opposite- and same-sex genital rubbing and oral sex. Bonobo males are also distinct from chimps in one very important regard: they are attentive and affectionate to the young of the group–all the young of the group. Chimps, on the other hand, tend to murder the children of rival males.The “selfish gene” theory gets a bad rap for its supposed implications for human society. The gene-centered view of evolution by natural selection, which says that natural selection operates on the level of the gene rather than the individual, makes people, particularly social theorists, very uncomfortable, exactly because of things like male chimp infanticide tendencies–not to mention chimp patriarchy and forced copulation. If humans are nothing but elaborate mechanisms meant to perpetuate individual genes, are we reduced to our biological imperatives? “Should” our society look like that of our closest relative? Is our society ordered against our will, by millions of years of primate evolution?
English moral philosopher Mary Midgley must’ve felt shaken, dismissing Richard Dawkins’ seminal The Selfish Gene by saying she hadn’t “attended” to it because she thought “it unnecessary to break a butterfly upon a wheel.” In 1997, Barbara Ehrenreich and Janet McIntosh were disturbed enough by what they termed “secular creationism” to write an essay, “The New Creationism: Biology Under Attack” specifically about the academic tendency to dismiss evolutionary exploration of human society. They illustrated their point with a horrifying anecdote about a presentation by social psychologist Phoebe Ellsworth, wherein Ellsworth’s mention of DNA prompted a fellow academic to incredulously ask, “You believe in DNA?”
The reflexive fear of science by these theorists (and the boogeyman of “reductionism“) is disappointing, and the beautiful sisterhood of the bonobos is a good example of why the fear of science always ends up casting the trembling in a poor light. Because while the selfish gene view of the world makes a gene for rival male infanticide make perfect sense–it privileges your own gene frequency over those of your rivals in future generations–it also makes perfect sense for the Plato’s Retreat paradise of bonobo social organization.
The selfish gene provides an elegant explanation for the peaceful, sex-dominated bonobo societies. As chimps and bonobos diverged from their last common ancestor (LCA), probably due to a body of water, chimps went one way–infanticide and male domination–and bonobos went another. Specifically, they developed an open, playful sexuality that encouraged communal attitudes towards the young by making it difficult or impossible for males to know which offspring were theirs. Cooperation serves the selfish gene as well as cruelty and domination can. The “determinism” of genes need not be “red in tooth and claw“; mutual aid can serve just as well, as the prevalance of symbiotic mutualism demonstrates. In the case of bonobo society, the strategy of open sex play and female directed promiscuity proved to be just as evolutionary stable as the more rigid chimp hierarchies.
Bonobo females work together to freeze out errant males from sexual bonding and reinforce their own bonds through grooming, food sharing, and “GG” (genital-genital, sorry to disappoint you, pervy googlers) rubbing. When a male becomes too aggressive, females will work together to attack the male. Due to the lack of significant dimorphism*, females are well equipped to take on the males, and will do so when necessary.
Bonobo mothers are strong, and bonobo communities are peaceful and happy because of it. The lives of these apes are fairly blissful, sexually joyous and, while hierarchical, comparatively open and fluid. Are there lessons for humanity in bonobo behavior? Perhaps. But perhaps not. And that’s the point.
This delightful sisterhood can tell us just as much about human society as chimpanzee social groups can; and, in fact, it can do something else: tell us nothing at all. Chimps and bonobos are more closely related to one another than we are to either, having a more recent LCA. Yet their societies could not be more different. Neither the aggressive quasi-patriarchy of chimps nor the orgiastic quasi-matriarchy of bonobos means human society must be one way or the other, nor a combination of both. Neither reactionaries seeking to justify male aggression and promiscuity nor “free thinkers” eager to find a justification for polyamory can extrapolate from our ape cousins. All we have is evidence of the enormous spectrum of primate behavior. It’s beautiful. It’s liberating. And it’s science.
As Ehrenreich and McIntosh point out, “secular creationism” emerged as an “understandable reaction to scientific excess” (*cough*Bell Curve*cough*) and efforts to explain all human behavior by analogy to the rest of the animal kingdom. But that isn’t science, it’s speculation; and the most vicious adversary of junk science is the scientific method itself. Nor is it new. Herbert Spencer’s clumsy attempt to apply Darwinism to human society was not the first attempt to use nature–or rather “nature”–as a justification for social inequalities: chattel slavery for one thing rings a nefarious bell. The misuse of science by sloppy or sinister thinkers is no excuse for the degradation of the scientific method. By such reasoning neither philosophy nor religion would fare well.
*Interestingly, the lack of dimorphism also speaks to the system of procreation: the lack of competitive harem behavior means males don’t have to grow larger since all males get to mate (unlike, say elephant seals); instead, their testes grow larger to facilitate sperm competition. This explains why harem-holding primates–like gorillas–have proportionately small testes. Human males, for the record, have relatively huge balls.