• Questioning the “sexy” bonobo hype, part 2: a primatologist debunks Christopher Ryan

    Read part 1 to get up to speed. See also follow-up post for even more.

    Following the first post on the subject, Christopher Ryan left comments to say that the primatologist colleague I had cited was incorrect about how extensively bonobos have been studied. He also made some unnecessary personal attacks, while saying little about the substance of that post.

    QuoteBetween then and now, two more primatologists have contacted me about bonobos. Them, and all of the primatologists I have ever spoken to on this subject, believe that Ryan’s take is misleading and erroneous. One has given me permission to post their rebuttal. It is printed below, unedited. I will honor their wish for anonymity, a wish that makes a good deal of sense if you read the comments of my last post and witness just how quickly personal insults get resorted to in this business of public skeptical discourse.

    ok, couple of major points. 1- The New Yorker’s Ian Parker has noted that “It is one of the oddities of the bonobo world—and a source of frustration to some—that Frans de Waal… has never seen a wild bonobo.” I have, a lot. Before I began studying this species I naturally read up on most of de Waal’s work. Some captive animal species can provide viable data for interpretation, i.e. how they behave in captivity can be assumed is how they behave in the wild. Bonobos are most certainly not one of these species. There are many reasons for this but lets stick with the basics.

    1 – In captivity their social grouping is totally artificial and not in line with how these animals group and disperse in the wild

    2 – If you put a group of male and female humans in a cage with nothing to do and provide them shelter and food, what do you think they would do all day – have sex!

    Natural bonobo behaviour and society is neither female dominated nor sex crazy. Data sets from the wild clearly show that over the course of a year female bonobos do not copulate any more than female chimpanzees. So let’s put that myth to bed right now. Females are not dominant over males in the sense that all male chimpanzees are dominant over all female chimpanzees. This is a very poorly understood area and we predict that future results will show that their dominance system is more to do with mother/son coalitions.

    Bonobos are violent. Granted they are not as violent as chimps but then what animal is? They fight and aggress each other just like any other group living species that have intragroup competition. Males sometimes rip infants from their mothers arms and bully the mothers. It happens, it’s a reality and an adaptive function of normal bonobo society.

    Copulating face to face – again, guess where this idea came from – captivity. Where they don’t have trees to climb in. I’ve recorded hundreds of copulations in wild bonobos. Want to know what percentage was ventral-ventral? 5%. All ventral-ventral copulations were when they were on the ground. It’s not about being face to face, it’s about what position is most convenient.

    Bonobos – not sex crazed, not peace loving, not female dominated. But easily the most intriguing and wonderful species to ever see and study in the wild. We don’t need to cling on to this anti-chimp image we are so desperate to give them. Their real behaviour is far more interesting.

    Several published papers substantiate some details given above. Note, these are all observations of bonobo behavior in the wild, not in captivity. Surbeck et al. (2011) described the existence of male-male dominance hierarchy, the strong correlation between this aggression-based dominance hierarchy and reproductive success, and the importance of mother/son kin support in male-male dominance contests contra ideas of “females run things”. Additionally, I found it relevant that they recorded 134 aggressive interactions when “conflicts arose over access to oestrous females”.

    Surbeck & Hohmann (2013) reported in their analysis of intersexual dominance across contexts that the LuiKotale bonobos have a mixed-sex hierarchy, not a females- or males-rule. They also observed the frequency with which females win a conflict (vs a male) depended on which context (food competition, mating, social challenge); for example females won 58% of the time in the feeding context but only 44% in the mating context. Females lost many conflicts because some females were subordinate to some males.

    Mixed-sex (or rather, sex-independent dominance) hierarchy is also reported by Furuichi (1997), Paoli et al. (2006), and Hohmann et al (1999). Wood and White (2007) went so far as to say males dominate but are sometimes deferent about food, writing,  “Males were consistently dominant in dyadic interactions.”

    I am no primatologist, but I could find no field research consistent with Ryan’s claims, nor do any of the half-dozen primatologists I have talked to agree with most of his claims about bonobos.

    EDIT (1/19/15) The first paragraph of the quoted material has been edited to include new information.

    Suggested reading
    Swingers” by Ian Parker in The New Yorker (2007) quotes Hohmann, Craig Stanford, Jeroen Stevens and others substantiating the claims above.

    Sex at Dusk by Lynn Saxon. A thorough rebuttal to Christopher Ryan’s Sex at Dawn.


    T. Furuichi (1997). Agonistic interactions and matrifocal dominance rank of wild bonobos (Pan paniscus) at Wamba, Zaire. Int J Primatol 18:855–875.

    G. Hohmann, U. Gerloff, D. Tautz and B. Fruth (1999). Social Bonds and Genetic Ties: Kinship, Association and Affiliation in a Community of Bonobos (Pan paniscus). Behavior. Vol. 136, No. 9, Genetic Analysis of Social Systems (Oct., 1999), pp. 1219-1235

    Martin Surbeck, Roger Mundry, Gottfried Hohmann (2011). Mothers matter! Maternal support, dominance status and mating success in male bonobos (Pan paniscus). Proc. R. Soc. B:2011278 590-598;DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2010.1572.

    Martin Surbeck, Gottfried Hohmann (2013). Intersexual dominance relationships and the influence of leverage on the outcome of conflicts in wild bonobos (Pan paniscus). Behav Ecol Sociobiol. 67:1767–1780

    Paoli T, Palagi E, Tarli SMB (2006). Reevaluation of dominance hierarchy in bonobos (Pan paniscus). Am J Phys Anthropol 130:116–122.

    White, F. J. and Wood, K. D. (2007), Female feeding priority in bonobos, Pan paniscus, and the question of female dominance. Am. J. Primatol., 69: 837–850. doi: 10.1002/ajp.20387

    Category: Critical ThinkingEvolutionary PsychologyfeaturedFeatured Incscienceskepticism

  • Article by: Edward Clint

    Ed Clint is an evolutionary psychologist, co-founder of Skeptic Ink, and USAF veteran.

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    • Pat Boyle

      I have to say – ‘I told you so’. When I first heard about the loving, sweet bonobos I was immediately skeptical. It reminded me of the similar early reports on the Mayans. Unlike the nasty violent and cannibalistic Aztecs, the Mayans were seen as philosophical, and contemplative. They were said to have spent their days studying the heavens and being at one with nature. Just the sort of Amerindian that would be admired by hippies and flower children.

      That idea came down to earth hard with more observation and research. I expected the same for the Bonobos and now I’ve been vindicated. Before Jane Goodall most Americans saw chimps as ‘J. Fred Muggs’ – lovable little clowns who only wanted to please. Ha!!

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    • Carpenter E

      This was totally expected, and thanks for posting it. Nothing is sweet and peace-loving in nature. That’s not nature. It is an endless battle field, and only the human species has tried to end that state. For example, only we keep pine trees, that turn the ground sour, from crowding out leaf trees in an area, halting the natural taking of land that goes on all the time in nature. Only we hold back elk in northern Scandinavia, who would otherwise spread southward in large numbers and take all the food from smaller, similar animals. Only we hold back the strong boar in Scandinavia who would otherwise drive away competitors. Only we keep wolves from spreading over Europe’s forests and wreak havoc on other animals. But leftists make sure school children never read about this in textbooks, which instead present nature as “harmony” and “a circle of life” where species only change in numbers and spread because of greedy humans. Fact: more than 99 percent of species that ever existed are extinct. They were exterminated by other species. Nature is a permanently violent place.

      • Helga Vierich

        Nope. Elk would hardly devastate “smaller similar animals” I assume you mean other deer? We have elk (Alces alces), wapiti, white tailed deer, mule deer, and caribou all living in Alberta and they feed on overlapping but different major plant communities. You do not have to “hold back” any of the species you mentioned. Wolves have been brought back and had a very positive effect on the whole ecosystem in Yellowstone park in the USA. As for nature being an endless battle field, that is also a gross exaggeration. Nature is most certainly not “a permanently violent place”.

        • Jeff Haskett

          Wolves had a positive effect precisely because they lowered the population of larger herbivores that had effectively forced out smaller ones. They restored an equilibrium to the ecosystem that enabled it to thrive.

    • Ah, Christopher Ryan. What a fellow. Y’know, I was one of his deluded fanboys several years back. But it was his reaction to critique, the personal attacks etc, that really led me to begin doubting his claims (along with the data brought up in said critiques of his claims).

      This led me to acqquire and read Lynn Saxon’s “Sex at Dusk” (An “Re:” in the form of a book using exactly the same sources that Chistopher Ryan [mis]used to compose Sex at Dawn). This was the first of two big hammer strikes that truly sealed S@Dawn’s coffin, in my mind, because he got LOTS of things wrong, beyond his claims about bonobos.

      The second big hammer strike was this Standford U lecture by Sapolsky, “Human Behavioral Biology”. Particular the sections on behavioral evolution and human sexual behavior. I felt like it really unified a lot of what I began learning after becoming skeptical of S@Dawn. (You can find that lecture here https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL848F2368C90DDC3D )

      Seeing claims about bonobos further debunked is, at this point, no longer a surprise for me.

    • MarkMinter

      I wrote a rather long piece last summer about Bonobos and said much of the same thing. The biggest thing I got was much of the hyper was exactly that, and it was people telling feminists what they wanted to hear. Primatology is sort of a “iffy” field with all sorts of practices that would not be considered sound with other species. A typical Bonobo expert “isn’t”. They travel out to the Congo spend a bit of time in a camp, get some pics taken with them holding a baby Bonobo, then head back to lecture on the “Make Love, Not War” culture of matriarchal nature of the species.

      The biggest thing I emphasized was how little actual field research had been done because of where Bonobos are found. The Congo has been in a state of civil unrest for much of the last 50 years. One author said he was in a camp two weeks and saw Bonobos twice for just a few seconds each time. I emphasized who the majoriity of Van der Wahl’s writing was based on observing YOUNG Bonobos in the San Diego zoo. And even that behavior had tempered as the apes aged.

      And the other aspect I emphasized was that Bonobos were the base trunk of ape evolution for Orangs, Gorillas, Humans and Chimps in order of the break off from the main trunk. Chimps and Bonobos separated after humans had done so and the Congo River formed as a result of geological upheaval. The Bonobos are “stuck” on the south side of the River and the Chimps live to the North. The environment of the Bonobos is considered “Edenic” with food sources far more available then in the regions where the other Great Apes live. All of the other species are definitely patriarchal and were able to survive in a far wider set of ecological circumstances. And in the other three species of great ape there is far greater ratio of Male/Female size than in the Bonobos. The point that I exited my article with was Bonobos “matriarchal” organization, or if not exactly Matriarchal, then the lack of Patriarchal social organization had “stunted” Bonobo social development, leaving them in an evolutionary dead end. The patriarchal chimps on the north side of the Congo river drove out Bonobos and were also able to survive in areas other than the dense Congo jungle.

      I would agree though, that of the great apes, Bonobos probably most resemble Humans in sexual organization, today. You wouldn’t call Humans a matriarchal organization (yet) but it certainly is very femcentric or gynocentric. There is ample example of human females banding together against lower status males, using social violence, and sometimes, physical violence against those lower status males to enforce the sexual order. Also there is much allowing sexual access to higher status males during fertile periods. Also, there is an emerging state where the social position of males is based on the social position of the mother. Perhaps this has always been the case in Humans but was clouded by the highest sexual status females having access to the highest status males naturally through proximity and social organization.

      You can look at the black community in America for examples of Bonobo behavior. Government support via direct transfer or make work jobs directed to females created an “Edenic” situation where females did not need males for support and protection. And this same sort of sexual behavior is “leaking” out into other social groups.

      To me, I imagine Bonobo society looking something like a nightclub, females in packs, lone males or two or three males in a small clique. The higher status females have orbiter males (in the case of the Bonobos, it is their sons). If a male approaches in a non-acceptable manner, the group of females and their orbiters turn on the male.

      Frankly, I found this research to be most disturbing to me as a male. I think men should fight like the Dickens to keep any sort of society like this from taking hold in Humans.

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