Friday, July 17, 2015

Apples & Bonobos

One of the most interesting and, I dare say, marketable findings in recent primatology is the difference between chimpanzees and bonobos.  The two species are so much alike that they were at first called “pygmy chimpanzees”.  The differences, once they were recognized, are profound.  Chimpanzees kill each other.  They do so within groups and between groups in organized raids that amount to wars.  So far, there is not a single recorded case of one or more bonobos killing another conspecific. 
Another difference is that bonobos use sexual stimulation as a social lubricant.  Females stimulate females and form social bonds by this means.  Coalitions of sexual partners defend each other and their sons against other aggressive males.  This seems to have largely short circuited the political violence and sexual aggressive that we see among chimpanzees.  Males stimulate each other in the same way, though without the same networking.  Male dominance is largely missing from bonobo societies.  Oh, and they often have intercourse face to face. 
There have been a number of challenges to this view of bonobos.  I have posted on this topic before, but for several reasons I return to it now. 
As far as I can tell, the challenges amount to two claims.  One rests on the discovery that bonobos, like chimpanzees, hunt.  They do.  They chase small animals and, when they can catch them, they eviscerate them and share the meat as do chimpanzees.  Okay, so they aren’t exactly Buddhist monks.  This finding has important implications, as it means that male dominance and hunting are not necessary for one another. 
The second claim is that bonobos experience the same social tensions as chimpanzees.  A bonobo male has to assert himself against other males and worries about that.  Social friction is just as much a part of bonobo life as it is among their chimp cousins.  Okay. 
It remains the fact that bonobos don’t kill bonobos and that is a very robust difference between their species and the other two homo species, chimpanzees and human beings.  Somehow Pan paniscus has not shed the tensions and instincts that lead to violence in our species and in the Pan troglodytes.  Instead, Pp has found a way to resolve those tensions without violence.  Nothing I have seen requires a significant revision of the view that bonobos are really different. 

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