• Faux-nobo: “Naked Bonobo” demolishes myth of sexy, egalitarian bonobos

    Review: The Naked Bonobo by Lynn SaxonHave you heard that bonobos are peaceful, matriarchal apes that use lots of free sex to obtain delightful egalitarian community? You’ve been lied to. The popular account of these wonderful apes is more faux-nobo than bonobo.

    Last year, Lynn Saxon published “The Naked Bonobo“, a book debunking the feel-good, fact-light modern mythology surrounding bonobos in the public imagination. This is a review and summary of that book.


    I have written twice on the subject of popular bonobo nonsense perpetuated by Christopher Ryan and the media. I recommend reading those short posts first [1] [2], particularly the second in which a primatologist who studies bonobos weighed in to correct the record (Questioning the Sexy Bonobo Hype, Part 2: A primatologist corrects Christopher Ryan).

    If you’re just tuning in, this topic is highly politically-charged.  Bonobo sexuality has been used (injudiciously, I would argue) to advance such worthy causes as greater sexual liberty, tolerance for polyamory, and reducing backward social norms of strict monogamy. My criticism isn’t motivated by opposition to these political and moral ideals- I support them. I think that Lynn Saxon would agree that this debunking is necessary because the faux-nobo mythos is dishonest, manipulative, anti-science, and feeds an unhealthy liberal dogmatism that misinforms the public and threatens free academic inquiry. Thus the original disclaimer from my first bonobo essay:

    I am not arguing for monogamy or for conventional sex roles or any such thing, nor against casual sex. Indeed, the meaning that I think we should not trash is inclusive of the various arrangements. Regardless of the whys, 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.

    “Naked Bonobo”  lives up to its title

    Usually debunkings of pseudoscience and sensational claims are mundane, if satisfying. It usually sounds like “GMOs are fine” or “The psychic is a fraud.” Not this time. The truth about bonobos is more shocking, salacious, and captivating than the lies are. I knew that “Bonobo” was going to concern itself with correcting popular bonobo myths, but there were still many surprises. It’s one of the page-turniest debunkings I have ever read. As fascinating as the material is, Saxon delivers it with a steady grace and restrained humor that keeps it light, but not too light.

    “The Naked Bonobo” is a meticulous summary of the published scientific sexuality and aggression research on bonobos. It is presented in a digestible pop-science book form. Saxon is to be commended for the herculean work of researching a sector of primatology and recounting it in this highly readable sub-200 page book.

    Craig Stanford is Professor of Anthropology and Biological Sciences at USC and Co-Director of the Jane Goodall Research Center

    My strongest criticism is that the book bogs down in one or two points in which several statistics are presented serially within a passage. This makes for a thorough treatment, but it can be taxing on the reader. This information could probably have been presented better in other ways. However, this is a minor gripe that doesn’t detract from the overall product. I would also have liked an index.

    Letter to the “wannabe”

    Comic from Humoncomics is an example of bonobo mythology propagation.
    This Humon comics panel has been passed around many internet meme depots, such as imgur and 9Gag. Click to embiggen.

    The book addresses four popular beliefs about bonobos:

    1. Bonobos are hypersexual apes…
    2. That are egalitarian and peaceful thanks to that hypersexuality.
    3. Bonobos are matriarchal, and that for all of these reasons…
    4. Humans are like or should envy bonobos.

    Media sites reinforcing these beliefs: Huffington Post, Salon, LiveScience, CBS News.

    These are seductive ideas for many progressivists and feminists. Saxon terms those who have been misled by deceptive bonobo popularizers “bonobo wannabes”. In the book, she regularly refers to the “wannabe”, challenging them to ponder if the bonobo way is really for them after all. The last chapter explores the logical entailments of the hyped “positive” aspects of faux-nobo, shattering the illusion using knowledge about actual bonobo life. It is sure to give any “wannabe” pause.

    Saxon fact-checks the claims

    A small sample of the evidences presented in “The Naked Bonobo”

    1. Are bonobos hypersexual?

    This is a bundle of related claims: sex is a “bonobo handshake”, bonobos are constantly interested in and having sex with whomever, and bonobos are more libidinous than chimpanzees or any other apes. According to Saxon, each of these claims is a great distortion of actual bonobo life:

    At the Yerkes Regional Primate Center, observations led to the conclusion that sexual behavior occurred only when animals were fed. . . no sexual behavior was observed at any other time of the day between 9:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. The bonobos even refrained from sex in 2 of the 17 observed feeding sessions. (p. 51)

    A study of the E1 community covered 97 days… 109 copulations were recorded. …This total of 109 copulations over 97 days is hardly more than an average copulation rate of one per day amongst all of these bonobos. (p. 58-9)

    This community included 19 sexually mature adults. That’s not ~1/day per bonobo, it is ~1/day for 19 adults. 88% of these observations took place away from the feeding site, which shows what a big difference the setting of observations can make.

    A comparison of Gombe and Mahale chimpanzees with Wamba bonobos found the copulation rates of adult male bonobos to be equal to or lower than those of the adult male chimpanzees. As for the adolescent males, the young chimpanzees were getting more than their bonobo counterparts (Takahata e al. 1996).

    What? Well, what about females?

     …[oestrus] female bonobos were less actively interested in sex than were female chimpanzees. This finding has also been confirmed in a later study of the Kalunzi forest chimpanzees, as the females there were found to actively initiate sex more often than female bonobos (Furuichi and Hasimoto 2002). (p. 70)

    In a study of the E1 community at Wamba, Furuichi found that 6 of the 10 females only mated when their swellings were at maximum firmness. (p. 68)

    So what went wrong?

    Observing bonobos in their remote forest habitat is very difficult. For this reason, writes Saxon, early research frequently focused on captive bonobos and artificial feeding sites. These groups were often quite small, had many sub-adult bonobos, and, of course, the captive bonobos were not living in natural settings. Juvenile and adolescent bonobos turned out to be far more sexually inclined than adults are.  Rich concentrated food stores (artificial feeding sites) induce near-panic in bonobo groups and this provokes sexual behavior. It is not representative of typical bonobo life in the African wild.

    2. Are bonobos egalitarian and peaceful due to their “make love not war” ways?

    Let’s start with, are they peaceful? More than chimpanzees? Saxon writes that bonobos seem to be more peaceable than chimpanzees in a couple of respects. Chimpanzees form patrols and team up to battle rival groups. They do not tolerate overlapping ranges. Bonobos don’t patrol and tend to avoid contact with other groups; their ranges can overlap. Within groups, there is less lethal violence when fights do break out among bonobos and infanticide is rare at best.

    That said, bonobo society is far from peaceful and bonobos are far from gentle.

    • Kano (1992) found a majority of one group’s individuals had “abnormalities” of the limbs, digits, ears, eyeballs, genitalia, and other parts. 28 counts of total loss of a finger or toe, 96 counts of partial loss. Only one of the 22 adult males had intact fingers and toes. 32 counts of ear lacerations which almost always result from fighting. (p. 117-8)
    • At Apenheul Zoo in the Netherlands, five female bonobos attacked a male and were seen gnawing on his toes; the flesh could be seen between their teeth as they chewed away.  (p. 119)
    • At least two zookeepers have lost parts of digits (p. 119)
    • While releasing bonobos back into the wild after rehabilitation at a sanctuary, three trackers were attacked and mutilated. They lost noses, bits of fingers and one lost an ear. One of the men spent a month in the hospital and two required a year of reconstructive facial surgery. (p. 122)
    • Overall, male-male aggression rates are similar in chimpanzees and bonobos (p. 126)

    Video: a gang of females attack an adolescent male as its mother tries to peel them off. The researchers observing said that the male appeared to have been “at the wrong place at the wrong time.” I wonder why these peaceful apes didn’t resolve their problem- a single adolescent male- with sex instead of mob violence.

    Female aggression toward infants and other females

    • The alpha female at Twycross Zoo took the infant of the lowest ranking female, even though she was still nursing her own infant. After weeks of rough treatment at the alpha’s hands, she lost interest and the infant had to be removed for human rearing as it showed signs of “weakness and dehydration”.  (p. 120-121)
    • There are at least 8 cases of infant abduction or victim of aggressive behavior at the Plankendael and Stuttgart zoos; the mothers of the stolen infants behaved nervously and showed signs of distress. While trying to get their infants back, some of the females would present for genito-genital rubbing. (p. 121)

    Is there anything sexier than bartering a sex act for your baby’s life?

    • In one Lomako group, aggression between females was about 7 times higher when two or more oestrous females were in the party than when there was only one. (p. 124)

    I thought that females were keeping the peace with sex, not causing fights over sex?

    Next, are bonobos egalitarian? That is, are various goods and resources (food, sex, social support) more evenly distributed among individuals? Chimpanzees are thought to have the opposite arrangement, a more rigid rank system that greatly privileges the chimp elites. Saxon writes that bonobos are probably somewhat more egalitarian than chimpanzees, but much less so than is commonly supposed. Sometimes, it is not clear that there is a difference at all.

    • A female-biased sex ratio is taken to be evidence of male intrasexual competition. Competition is a physiologically taxing and risky enterprise that leads to early death for many males. The problem here is that, overall, the sex ratio of chimpanzees and bonobos is very similar.
    • Both females and males had higher mating rates when they were aggressors compared to when they were targets of aggression.  (p. 124)
    • Bonobo society, including its females, rewards rank and aggression:
      • Females strongly prefer high ranking males. When in oestrus, this preference intensifies.
      • High ranking males are more aggressive, and actively block other males from access to fertile females.
    • Ranking female “wingmoms” aid their sons (but not daughters) in bullying and picking fights to advance their status. (p. 115)
    • Feeding is highly segmented by rank. Low ranking individuals may be charged or attacked if attempting to line-jump.
    • Female bonobos disperse to other groups around adolescence. When accepted in their new group, they solicit sex acts from higher ranking males at food sites. This behavior, and their total libido, drops substantially as they gain rank. In order words, they’re forced to barter sex for food. Not because they’re eager for sexual contact. When they don’t have to, they don’t. Few consider coerced prostitution a sign of gender equality.

    3. Are bonobos matriarchal?

    Some scholars would say that they are.  Others disagree, asserting instead that rank and dominance aren’t really functions of sex. Saxon argues that across all bonobo studies, the idea that females are generally in charge and decide about who copulates with whom, is unsupported. Like the hyper-sexed image, these observations originated mostly in small, captive groups. In contrast, she writes, Research at both Lomako and LuiKotale has found little support for the view that females form these alliances to collectively defend themselves against males. [At LuiKotale] of the 136 acts of aggression by a male towards a female, only 2% led to a female coalition against the male  (p. 157-8). Some other flies in the matriarchal ointment:

    • Females routinely treat other females with indifference, aggression, or outright brutality (see above).
    • Females are “sexy” often in a coercive context of needing to placate ranking females or males in order to eat or not suffer assault.
    • The primary beneficiaries of high female status are males: their sons. In what matriarchy do males inherit rank, but females do not?
    • High ranking males can outrank many females. The opposite does not happen in “patriarchal” chimpanzee society.
    • Rather than moderate, females often reward males for their aggression and dominance (as long as they are its beneficiary rather than its victim).
    • Egalitarianism means that rank hierarchies themselves are weak or absent. But it is impossible to sensibly discuss bonobo social life without constant awareness of rank and the associated social politics.

    4. Should humans envy bonobos?

    Perhaps the most important idea in this book is that the “great” parts of the faux-nobo lifestyle wannabes want us to emulate, properly understood, become disturbing if not nightmares outright:

    “Sexy” bonobos have the most frequent sex as sub-adults and sexual contact between juveniles, infants, and adults is quite common and normal.

    “Tension-reducing” sex among bonobos is most often not about fun. It is not about enthusiastic consent, but coercion on threat of aggression. Like humans, we know that bonobos have preferred sexual partners. But the social friction most likely occurs between two individuals who are not close or friendly. Bonobos are therefore required to offer sexual contact to individuals they do not like. Faced with an agitated, aggressive male you do not care for, how do you women feel about offering copulation to calm him? And men, how do you feel about offering a penis to rub or your rump for the same? This is the bonobo way.

    The overwhelming majority of sexual actions involving genitals do not involve ejaculation or (so far as can be told) orgasm in bonobos. This includes masturbation and intercourse.

    Paragon of inquiry

    “The Naked Bonobo” is dissent done right: civil, competent, and constructive. While mildly cheeky with the “wannabe” framing device, the work is quite even-handed in its tone and charitable to those that it critiques. It contains no insults or recriminations. It foists no strawpersons, working to honestly represent the other side and to identify shared values and common ground where possible.

    Saxon’s review of the literature is, by all indications, diligent and conscientious. She sent manuscripts to subject matter experts for feedback. She is quick to caution against hasty conclusions when the evidence is scant or ambiguous. She reminds the reader several times that we yet know very little about bonobos and must wait before getting too attached to notions about what they are like.

    I would recommend “The Naked Bonobo” to anyone who cares at all about these apes. But it also stands as a skeptical exemplar that is instructive on how to debunk with integrity and class.

    When the chimpanzee fell from grace as the peaceful vegetarian, who would have thought that lurking in the shadows was another hairy cousin, and a much better one at that.

    “The Naked Bonobo” opens with this line. Saxon is retelling the history of the bonobo rise to stardom, but this is also a reminder that early ideas about chimpanzees often turned out to be woefully mistaken. What we know, or think that we know, can turn out to be wrong. That’s why it’s always a bad idea to base a moral value or a political goal on a conception of the facts. It can blow up in your face when that conception proves wrong. It can create a caustic ideology hostile to the truth and to academic inquiry. There is nothing sexy or egalitarian about that.

    Further reading

    Lynn Saxon’s blog | Goodreads

    Swingers: Bonobos are celebrated as peace-loving, matriarchal, and sexually liberated. Are they? by Ian Parker | The New Yorker

    Do bonobos really spend all their time having sex? by Henry Nicholls | BBC

    In the Bonobo World, Female Camaraderie Prevails by Natalie Angier | New York Times

    Category: Critical ThinkingEvolutionary Psychologypsychologyscienceskepticism

  • Article by: Edward Clint

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

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    • erudyte42


      Regarding, “Dissent done right.”

      Nice review I thought.

      What is skeptic ink’, and would you like to review ‘one of mine’?

      • Thanks. Skeptic Ink is a blog network focusing on skepticism and critical thinking as applied to a large variety of topics. How do you mean “one of mine”? Do you mean books?

        • erudyte42

          Sorry, yes. I self-published 3 books this year. Reading your article my mind went to this one…’The Drive for Mastery; A new model of the behavior agenda of all living things.’ A bit dramatic-sounding but it’s very real.

    • Durinn McFurren

      Excellent review, I really want to read this now!

      One quick note: gender or sex egalitarianism wouldn’t necessarily preclude an hierarchy, as long as that hierarchy included males/females in equal numbers at all levels. It could still involve a ‘class hierarchy,’ so to speak.

    • Cartesian Phantom

      Perhaps bonobos behave differently in captivity than out in the natural world. A lot of these examples of bonobos being violent are decontextualized. That being said, being either completely peaceful or completely violent is a myth. Too simplistic. Plus, who are we to judge these beings? Man has a greater ability to engage in violence.

      • This is just a book review. If you want more details and context, read the book. The contexts of the aggression and violence are frequently discussed and hardly mysterious (rank, food, and mate competition, mostly).

        Whether they are “completely” peaceful was never the claim or counterclaim.

        who are we to judge these beings?

        I am not judging them. Such a thing strikes me as deeply absurd, like condemning a shark for killing fish. I am responding to others who are. I am reporting on misinformation and distortion of published research. Ignorance does not serve us or them.

        • Cartesian Phantom

          Is there really much of a need to read the book for context? (I want to read the book, and likely will.) The article gives the context. It explains that it’s hard to observe these beings in the natural world, so they created artificial areas for them to be observed.

          Fighting for food in captivity? Is that violent, or is it a natural reaction to stress, etc.? What living being wouldn’t react that way?

          Perhaps judging isn’t the right word, but there is a certain sense of irony here. It reminds me of when Anthropologists went to the Western world and observed the Yanamamo.

          They observed some stick matches and fights, if you will, and concluded that these are fierce and violent people. Perhaps they do fight, but the Yanamamo were never involved in any world wars. Plus the violence was decontextualized. For example, you give one group food and machetes, when different groups are already struggling for resources and outsiders (researchers and missionary types) are encroaching on your habitat in a country that is changing in a global market.

          • I think it would help to read it, yes.

            Fighting for food in captivity?

            See here, you seem confused about what is being said. Captive bonobos have been, reportedly, less violent. Not more so.

            Plus the violence was decontextualized. For example, you give one group food and machetes

            I’m glad you’re concerned about that. Who do you think the ones are bringing important contextual information to the fore here? Among others, Lynn Saxon and myself. That’s why she writes about the differences between what happens at a zoo, a feeding site, and natural habitat. In the book, she brings up loads more contextual details than I have room to in a book review. For example, bonobos reared at or released from a sanctuary are victims of the bush meat trade (their mothers were hunted and eaten by humans) and they therefore had unusual and perhaps very stressful lives. Their behavior can’t be assumed to generalize across all bonobos.

            Rather than cherry-picking, Saxon discusses the great variation in chimpanzee behavior; the Taï chimpanzees for example differ significantly from those at other sites in terms of aggression and violence.

            Saxon discusses how the age and sex make-up and total size of a group of bonobos is important and affects their behavior.

            It’s important to understand all of these and more.. and failing to do (or ignoring them outright) so is one of the reasons misinformation has spread so easily.

            • Cartesian Phantom

              Edward, thanks for the replies. Pretty cool of you to do…

              But I, being a college graduate but not an academic, am confused. Reading the article, the section about peace that is, a lot of the bullet points that I see relate to captivity (taking place in zoos) or recently being recently released and attacking humans.

              I re-read the article a bit, with fresh eyes, and can certainly accept that I don’t understand, but I don’t think the article explains that bonobos are less violent in captivity. I guess the book might, but I’m pretty skeptical about that point; that seems counterintuitive to me.

              The only thing I can come up with is: with more food, there is less conflict and little reason to trade sex for food…?

            • Ah, I can see what you mean CP. I think I originally had more of a balance in that section and some I deleted for length or moved to the next section on “matriarchy”. But note that that section also has to do with violence and aggression (mothers aid sons in bullying, females are coerced by actual or implicit threats to be “sexy”, females reward aggressive males for being aggressive). These are not from captive groups. Nor is Kano (1992), if that was unclear.

              And the most important bullet point, perhaps I should have put first but I did put in bold, “Overall, male-male aggression rates are similar in chimpanzees and bonobos”. That’s including everything we know about both species in the wild.

              Some more bits from the wild:

              All mature males over 10 years of age were seen to engage in aggressive interactions with other males over access to females (Surbeck et al. 2012).(p.128)

              Across all studied groups of bonobos, aggression is clearly a significant part of their behavior. Compared to chimpanzees, male aggression is less severe but there is also much more female aggression. (p. 131)

              That page also has a quote from Frans de Waal: The level of violence amongst bonobos may be lower but they are not entirely peaceful, and “the difference from the chimpanzee is slight”

              Curious, isn’t it, how experts agree this difference is small and yet these two apes are often painted as polar opposites.

    • João

      Even if they wage on extreme acts of violence and so on, these acts stand out precisely because they are exceptional. Otherwise bonobos wouldnt be described as largely peaceful. It’s important to keep that in mind, i guess. The critique is therefore aimed at those who project extreme wishful thinking of utopia and noble savagism on bonobos. Just to clarify, i don’t care if bonobos are “largely peaceful” or “extremely psychopathic”, i’m just saying this because it would be rather odd that bonobos would be known as mostly peaceful if it wasn’t true to some extent. Wouldn’t you agree?

      • No, it isn’t odd, because of hyperbolic distortion by unscholarly and/or irresponsible parties which some among the media were only too happy to print. Also, keep in mind that chimpanzees were once considered “extremely peaceful” …until we got to know them better.

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    • Nyx

      Lynn Saxon is the fake name of a fake author.
      Please refer to reliable scientific sources and the observations of researchers on the field such as Frans de Waal, who have studied bonobos first hand.

      • No, it is the real name of a real person. An example of a fake name would be “Nyx”.

        This book is a review of the published scientific literature on bonobos, including Frans de Waal. It has been given favorable review by prominent primatologists such as Craig Stanford. It is also perfectly consistent with conversations I have had with primatologists who are among my colleagues.

    • dreamernobody@gmail.com

      Seems that liberals have been doing the same thing for a couple centuries now, starting with “Enlightenment” tales of idealized pagan societies that were supposedly both more sexually free and idyllic in their peaceful, egalitarian societies. First from tales of exploring the East, then from the New World. Sometimes it was a long time before the truth came out, but one by one the Utopias came crashing down, along with a number of attempts to create new Utopias. Chimpanzees were supposed to be a peaceful society, too. And remember the early excitement over the discovery of the “primitive,” peaceful, edenic Tasaday people?

      So it’s refreshing to see this clarification coming from one who speaks of “worthy causes as greater sexual liberty, tolerance for polyamory, and reducing backward social norms of strict monogamy.” Can you just imagine how such fairy tales being thrust at us as “proof” that such sexual anarchy is worthy makes those of us who have a contrary view feel? It’s not pleasant, that’s for sure.

      We can disagree, but when one side is getting all the popular press behind it — but doing so with the help of distortions of science presented as facts — it’s quite oppressive. I think what really makes the difference in such issues is in one’s religious views (or anti-religious view) and whether or not such sexual freedom is a matter of “All else the same.” Even an atheistic evolutionist can see that whatever our species’ relatives do or ancestors did has no necessary bearing on what we should do.

      From what I’ve seen in my own lifetime of over 5 decades and from what I’ve seen in studying history, with or without tales of non-existent utopian societies, those who think they can radically change society and come up with something better will find in the long run that they’ve been chasing a mirage. But even if I’m wrong, things aren’t going to get better if we support our goals with fantasies about producing an ideal society by imitating animals. We might take individual examples as illustrations of desirable behavior, but only because they fit something we have good reason to believe, not vice-versa.