Why Many Left-Liberals Belong To The Cult Of The Bonobo?

TAMLER SOMMERS: [...] [L]et's start talking about the bonobos, the closest primate relative of the chimpanzee. [...] You call them the "hippe ape," you describe some of their interactions as "orgies" -- the reader gets the general sense of them as a sort of nonviolent free-love egalitarian noble-savage kind of animal. [...] [I]n your words, [they are] "the forgotten ape." Why have they been forgotten?

FRANS DE WAAL: Well, first of all, we've only recently learned about the bonobos. The first discovery of these types of apes was the chimpanzee, whom Europeans have known since the seventeenth century. And even the few bonobos we did know then were called chimpanzees -- everything was chimpanzee at the time. So that's one reason they were discovered much later. The fieldwork was done much later. There were very few captive studies. The other reason is that the story of the bonobo didn't fit the thinking.


FDW: The postwar thinking was that we're an aggressive species. Which is pretty logical after World War II. But it became a kind of obsession to ask: Why are we so aggressive? Is it an instinct or is it not an instinct? Is it ingrained into our natures or not? That was the issue. One camp, of biologists, claimed that we were by aggressive. And a group of anthropologists used the chimpanzee initially as a counterexample. These anthropologists said, "Look at the ape. Our close relatives just travel through the trees and eat fruit and are peaceful. So that means our ancestors were probably peaceful and aggression is a cultural product."

TS: Probably a comforting thought.

FDW: Yes, but in the '70s [in the 1970s], when the first reports came out about chimpanzees killing each other and killing monkeys, all of a sudden the counterarguments to the biologists were wiped off the table. [...] The chimpanzee became the primary model for the human species and everything just clicked into place. That new model was: "We are aggressive, they are aggressive, we must have been aggressive for six million years. Look at the ape."

TS: And then came bonobos.

FDW: Yes, then along came the behavioral data on bonobos in the '80s [in the 1980s]. And they didn't fit into the [then] new picture. [...]


FDW: [...] [At the time of this interview it was believed that Bonobos] don't kill [each other or infants]. [...] [At the time of this interview it was believed that] they have a very effective way of avoiding aggression, which is [#1] their sexual interactions [...] [and #2 the] female bonobos collectively dominate the males, which probably also helps control aggression. [...]


TS: I have to bring up "GG-rubbing." [...]


TS: [...] What is GG-rubbing, exactly? And what is its purpose? Why do female bonobos engage in it so often?

FDW: GG-rubbing is when females cling to each other almost like a mother and child, and they rub their genitals together -- basically a sexual interaction. [...]


FDW: [...] Partly it resolves conflict between them. Partly it's a conciliatory thing. It's a greeting. Mostly it promotes bonding between them. And the bonding is a very strong political instrument, because female bonobos only dominates the males collectively. A female is not individually capable of dominating a male. So GG-rubbing is basically a political tool.

-- Tamler Sommers , Fransiscus Bernardus Maria de Waal

from "A Very Bad Wizard: Morality Behind the Curtain"

Quoted on Sat Mar 31st, 2012