Pages Menu
TwitterRssFacebook
Categories Menu

Posted by on Jun 13, 2014 in Evolutionary Psychology, featured, Featured Inc, science, skepticism | 11 comments

Questioning the “sexy” bonobo hype

Among wild bonobos there’s no deadly warfare, no male dominance, and enormous amounts of sex. They make love, not war.  —Frans de Waal

Pick one?

Are these the options?

While many think humans are or should be more like bonobos, we should hope that is not true. In fact, few would find bonobo sexuality, properly understood, desirable even were it possible to be more like them.

This past year I have met perhaps the two biggest advocates for the advancement of public understanding of bonobos: Frans de Waal and Christopher Ryan. de Waal has often and loudly decried the shameful treatment of bonobos, who are among our nearest ape cousins, by science journalism and perhaps researchers in general. Peaceful and highly sexual bonobo society has been embarrassing to report on. Particularly so in light of the obvious homosexuality and promiscuity. Meanwhile Christopher Ryan’s bestselling Sex at Dawn is largely based on the idea that humans are more like bonobos than they are like chimpanzees. Ardent Atheist Podcast

Listen to Ryan and I discuss monogamy and evolution on the Ardent Atheist Podcast. Podcast may feature graphic language and is not intended for children; Possibly NSFW.

Listen on the web.
Listen on iTunes.

Plan it of the apes?

Ryan and numerous websites have politicized and moralized bonobo peacefulness and sexuality, making claims that they are evidence that the (human) monogamy status quo is fiction or that we may choose to be more like the bonobos and less like the chimpanzees should we wish to. Many people who are polyamorous or pro-poly are quite taken with Ryan’s work and apparent anti-strict monogamy message. Here’s a brief round-up of such websites:

Monogamy is not a natural state for men OR women… controversial TED lecturer claims that we are all built to be promiscuous
Salon.com | “Sex at Dawn”: Why monogamy goes against our nature
Buzzfeed | 11 Reasons Why Bonobos Are The Sexiest Primates
ABC | Sexy Beasts: Bonobos Make Love, Not War

There is much to like about bonobo society, especially if you are comparing them to chimpanzees. Low infanticide, sex for social bonding and conflict resolution, common sexual acts between any two sexes, and very little violence in general. Some of the details also seem uniquely shared by bonobos and humans: face-to-face sex with eye contact,  tongue kissing, oral sex, and perhaps orgasm in females and males. These are some of the facts that are often referred to, but they paint a superficial picture of bonobo sexual life. The deeper implications make the picture much less rosy.

Sex among bonobos is usually about 10 seconds in duration. Most often, it does not appear to involve orgasm by either individual, no matter the sexes. They do not appear to have long term sexual relationships of any sort (though long term socially bonded associates may at times have sex). de Waal and others often describe sex being used to “defuse tension” or stress. Author Vanessa Woods wrote a book called Bonobo Handshake, after observing that their “sex is as common and friendly as a handshake.” Encounters may be fleeting, casual gestures never necessarily indicative of emotional connection.

These moral comparatives of humans and non-humans are spurious non sequitirs.  Collected from the internet.

These moral comparatives of humans and non-humans are spurious non sequiturs. Collected from the internet.

Sexual jealousy, which is closely associated with cultural ideas of monogamy, is taken to be an ugly, harmful thing. It certainly can be. It’s often a motive for assault or murder among men and casual infanticide among chimpanzees. But not bonobos. Male bonobos do not know which are their offspring, and the young also do not require paternal provisioning of food or protection to successfully reach adulthood. The  group cooperative sees to that. So, socially speaking, there are no bonobo fathers, only sperm donors. There are no pair-bonds, no mates. There are simply no enduring sexual relationships between males and females at all. So a primate species can, in principle, jettison this ugly sexual jealousy stuff. All that it costs is what we tend to call love, limerence,  romance, romantic attachment/bonding, romantic intimacy, and the idea and practice of fatherhood or even “family” outside of the mother/offspring component. What that leaves of sex is frequent, enjoyable, but maximally superficial “handshake” encounters. Opinions shall vary on the value of this hypothetical trade, but my opinion is that the “sexy” bonobo arrangement is among the least-sexy that I can imagine.

Yang

There is a down side to everything great about humans, the other side of the proverbial coin. We have a competitive drive that can bring out the worst, and the best. We have ingenuity as useful to making new guns as making new cures for terrible diseases. The love we have for each other, the incalculable value put in relationships can lead us to do awful things to secure or protect them. We should seek to finds ways to reduce the harmful consequences (after all, we have the ingenuity!), rather than admire a real or hypothetical society that doesn’t have the harm because it doesn’t have the love. We need the love.

The politics

I am not arguing for monogamy or for conventional sex roles or any such thing, nor against casual sex, no matter how casual. Indeed, the meaning that I think we should not trash is inclusive of the various arrangements (casual or otherwise). Bonobos aren’t polyamorous because they aren’t really amorous to begin with. Regardless of the why’s, humans have loads of variation in what sorts of relationships they want to have. Provide no harm is involved, adults should be at liberty to live as they choose and fornicate with whomever they wish to. We don’t need to believe anything about our species history to think that, we only need to reason about basic ethics of fairness and use a little common sense. All else the same, freedom is better. There’s no sound moral argument to the contrary, whether or not we survey what other apes think about it.

Peaceful primates?

A primatologist colleague has educated me that bonobos have not had extensive longitudinal research conducted, and findings of the peaceful nature of bonobo society might be premature. For example, Jane Goodall thought chimpanzees, which we now find so violent and aggressive, were quite peaceful animals even after years of observation. A similar trajectory of understanding has occurred in other primate studies. It’s also worth pointing out that rather than male dominance, there is female dominance, and the dominance is maintained with violence:

Females that have strong bonds keep males away from food and often attack males, biting off their fingers and toes (de Waal 1997).

A violence-sustained mob dominance is hardly laudable, regardless of the type of genitals of the mobsters. Female-dominated hyena societies are just as brutal and violent as the male-dominated ones, so perhaps the alignment of maleness and aggression-dominance as a biological rule is inapt. But in any case, bonobo society is hardly what anyone would call egalitarian. I hope it is obvious how inappropriate it is to judge another species by human standards, as I am doing here. I would ordinarily not think to do so, but this essay is in reply to those who are conducting such reasoning and I think it is important to drive home the full implications of such flawed perspective.

Evolutionary import for humans?

Does the peaceable, matriarchal, and free-sex society of the bonobos say something about what we “used” to be like? Chimpanzees, humans, and bonobos diverged about 7 million years ago and chimps and bonobos split only about 1 million years ago. The more violent and less-sexy chimps seem to be that way regardless of their “cultural” trappings, as do bonobos. Part of the reason for our differences is biological. Since it only took,  at most, a million years for the ancestral species of chimps and bonobos to differentiate pretty radically in these ways, and we diverged from both 6-7 million years ago it seems unreasonable to presume the common ancestor of 3 species so different in these ways must have been just like one and not the other two. The ecologies of the species through time and their unique trajectories and constraints are probably key to understanding the different outcomes, and an argument of past similarity must rest of such considerations. No such argument has been advanced, to my knowledge. Frans de Waal has written to the contrary in his book Our Inner Ape:

Some Anthropologists, such as Margaret Mead, relying on informants rather than firsthand observation, have created a romantic fiction that is still with us today. But even the most sexually liberal cultures are not free from jealousy and violence in response to unfaithfulness. Universally, intercourse takes place in private, and the genital region tends to be hidden. That even the early Hawaiians knew chastity is suggested by their word for loincloth, malo, the most likely origin of which is malu, the Malayan word for “shame.” Most societies also limit sex to a few partners. Polygamy may be practiced and accepted, but in reality the vast majority of families in the world include only one man and one woman. The nuclear family is the hallmark of human social evolution. Given the exclusivity of our sexual contacts, we’ve opted for the opposite of the bonobo plan by actually enhancing a male’s ability to tell which offspring are his. Until modern science came along, men could never be sure, but had a far better chance of guessing right than a bonobo does. (emphasis mine)

Being determined, not determinate

Regardless of what our phylogeny is like or who is closest among our living cousins, humans are equipped with a variety of innate capacities they can use to improve life for everyone, like the ability to reason and senses of fairness, compassion, and justice. We can, and have, reduced rates of violence. We can, and have, increased sexual liberty. There is every reason to suspect human society will improve along these lines in the future. Not because we’re like bonobos or chimps, but because we are not.

  • http://de-avanzada.blogspot.com/ Ðavid A. Osorio S

    About that bit you emphasized: “The nuclear family is the hallmark of human social evolution”, what do you make out of these?

    http://www.monbiot.com/2012/05/14/kin-hell/

    http://www.nber.org/papers/w18966

    Cheers!

    • http://www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

      I have not read those. I would say though, there is a difference between a conservative making a prescriptive claim (society/family should be organized this way, it’s the right way to be…) and a primatologist or anthropologist making a descriptive claim about our evolutionary history and why we have the kind of minds we do.

      de Waal notes in the same chapter that bonobo mothers, even with relative food abundance and parenting aid from allied females, can only manage to have one child every five years. In this way, humans are different from all other apes. It is very typical for women in small scale societies to have children every 2 years or so. That is, they have many kids at one time that can’t take care of themselves, and that the mother can’t possibly take care of either, not alone, or even with babysitting help. de Waal noted that the women need some protection against infanticide, and relative monogamy is one way to do that.

      Things that made us better colonizers of Earth, as de Waal claims the nuclear family structure did, are not necessarily the optimal arrangement for the proliferation of individuals in our modern environments. It’s also not necessarily the range of possibilities for humans. Differing ecological and social conditions can force other arrangements. In some parts of Tibet where land is too scarce to be worth fighting over (the cost of fighting is too high, the benefit to the winners too low) you see fraternal polyandry. Brothers share a single wife and each helps raise all children equally.

  • Uttrediay

    The nuclear family may look universal, but one has to remember that it is prescribed by the major religions. Also, it is still common in many countries for reproductive couples to live in the house of the parents of one of the members of the couple, often along with other reproductive couples. Even in Europe, the establishment of independent reproductive couples on a large scale started only about a 100 years ago.

    • http://www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

      Interestingly, it isn’t really prescribed by the major religions. In the Old Testament revered by the Abrahamic faiths, polygyny is common and its part of stories of some of God’s favorite people, like Jacob. In the new testament, Paul rails against marriage, saying it is good for a man not to marry, and those who don’t will fare better. Jesus is distinctly anti-family, repeatedly insulting motherhood and family bonds.

      The modern and nuclear family as we know it was retconned into the religions relatively recently.

      Coresidence with extended family is not antithetical to the idea of “nuclear family” in the present context. The idea is more to the social roles of parents and the shared/primary responsibility for the young mothers and fathers can have.

      As we have mastered our environment, food production, and other survival concerns, we have indeed changed the way we live, including the residence patterns. But this is more the question than the answer. Why do societies retcon the nuclear family into religion? Why did people change from the extended family arrangement? The same reason people watch porn rather than seek a mate. Not because it was something our ancestors did, but because it suddenly became possible. Given the freedom, people used the freedom to live the way they most wanted to. And they most wanted to live in nuclear families. Because that arrangement is most consistent with maximizing wants with respect to evolved psychology in a modern context.

      • Rita

        I agree with you about that religion do not promote nuclear family. Christianity is not the only religion. Most of the religion, though do not favour Polyandry, nut do favour Polygyny, especially Islam.

  • Pingback: Sex, revolution and warp drive technology. It’s been a crazy week at rbutr. The best of rbutr #5 — rbutr

  • ChrisRyanPhD

    I’m afraid your unnamed primatologist colleague is wrong. Bonobos have been studied quite extensively in captivity (by Frans de Waal and others, since the 1970s) and, despite extreme risk and hardship, long-term studies in the wild have been under way since the mid-70s as well (e.g., http://www.researchgate.net/publication/227029130_Long-Term_Studies_on_Wild_Bonobos_at_Wamba_Luo_Scientific_Reserve_D._R._Congo_Towards_the_Understanding_of_Female_Life_History_in_a_Male-Philopatric_Species).

    In that time, precisely ZERO cases of infanticide, murder, rape, or lethal group conflict have been observed. What I find fascinating is the psychological need that otherwise intelligent people have to “disprove” the “peaceful bonobo hype.” You clearly feel threatened by it, but it’s difficult for me to understand why. I wrote about this strange phenomenon back in 2008, here: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sex-dawn/200812/cannibalistic-hippy-orgy-war-breaks-out

    If you were writing about anything else, for example, I seriously doubt you’d cite an unnamed “colleague” to dispute a major contention supported by dozens of studies published in reputable, peer-reviewed journals. It took me less than five seconds to find the link above, showing on-going studies of wild bonobos since 1973. What motivated you to cite your mysterious colleague and NOT invest the five seconds it would have taken to see that he/she was wrong? Doesn’t seem like very skeptical thinking to me. In fact, this sort of sloppy critique accompanied by a puppy-dog eagerness to believe what fits your pre-existing world view is quite the opposite of skepticism.

    • http://www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

      re: level of violence

      You may be correct the my colleague is mistaken. I actually raised all of the points you do in discussion with them, but they remain firm that some behaviors are difficult to document. As I wrote, a similar pattern of “we’re sure they don’t do this” has occurred in the history of research of other primates; we don’t always know what we don’t know. But I have no strong opinion on this point, and I am not a primatologist, so I include their expertise.

      You clearly feel threatened by it, but it’s difficult for me to understand why.

      All of your comments here focus on two sentences which are not integral to what this essay is about. All I wrote was that the conclusions “might be premature”. Frankly, I have no idea if they are, and I only included it because a more knowledgeable person than I thought it was a significant observation. In any case, it’s a minor skeptical caution, not a conclusive dismissal.
      I omitted the name because not everyone wishes to engage in contentious public discourse. Some people actually just want to do good research and let the rest sort out the implications. Sounds crazy, I know.

      In fact, this sort of sloppy critique accompanied by a puppy-dog eagerness to believe what fits your pre-existing world view is quite the opposite of skepticism.

      I appreciate you taking time to comment here, but please be advised that personal insults are not appropriate in this website. Considering your only objection is to two sentences constituting a soft caution, which could be completely omitted from this essay without any change in its thesis or other content… I think my critique seems quite solid.

      If indeed I am such a poor skeptic and blinded by my ideology, then one should be able to easily point out flaws in the reasoning, the content and should not have to resort to insulting sincerity and intent. I have given you the benefit of the doubt that you are a sincere and honest person even where we disagree. I would appreciate the same courtesy and civility.

      • ChrisRyanPhD

        In fact, I did “easily point out flaws in the reasoning and content.” That’s precisely what I did. I just picked the most glaring example of several. And I’m quite sincere in my confusion as to why bonobos freak some people out so much that they produce essays like this. It’s nothing personal. As you’ll see if you read the pieces I linked to, you’re hardly the only one. And sorry if you find it overwhelming, but your critique is sloppy in my opinion. At least I pay you the compliment of assuming this isn’t a typical example of your work.

        • Steven Bennett

          Lay off with the “overwhelming” device (and other accusations). It’s about as convincing as your “the standard narrative” trope.

        • http://www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

          Your rejoinder was very strongly, and disparagingly, worded. Strong statements, when necessary, should be supported with strong, relevant arguments. But that is not what you offered. The example you picked might have been “glaring”, but it was also the most tangential and mild, as well as not being any point of my own. The essay stands 100% as firmly without it as with it. That being the case, your criticism is inappropriate and inadequately supported (so far).

          Your observations that bonobos “freak some people out” might be apt or not. It could be true of me, or not. But this website is about scientific skepticism. My motivations and inner psychology are, within reason, irrelevant. What stands or falls is a matter of evidence and reasoning, nothing else. Disagreeing with you is not evidence of compromised integrity or intellectual honesty. It is not evidence that I am like others who disagree with you.

          Either my facts or reasoning are mistaken and inadequate to support my thesis, or they are not. In this forum, I ask that you (and everyone else) address them and skip the armchair psychoanalysis. If that is too tall an order, then perhaps it is not as easy to point out the flaws as you have suggested.

    • EllenBeth Wachs

      “You clearly feel threatened by it, but it’s difficult for me to understand why”

      Quite simply, because he doesn’t come across that way at all. There is nothing in his post that reflects that but your defensive posturing in your response makes you seem so.