Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Human nature/bonobo nature

The John Hawks blog has an interesting piece here regarding a recent piece in the New Yorker concerning bonobos. It seems that Frans de Waal, who has studied bonobos for years, objected to certain aspects of the article claiming that bonobos are not the peaceable creatures they have been made out to be. He sort of seemed to imply that the New Yorker was promoting some political agenda by publishing this. Now it so happens, I tend to agree with Hawks; he does not seem to think that the New Yorker is promoting some political agenda, whatever that may be. In fact, the New Yorker Magazine generally promotes "agendas"(when it does at all), that are the opposite of what de Waal appears to be implying. OTOH, I have come across people who sort of "valorize" a popular view of bonobos, that they are peaceable and "female dominated", which is partly based on some of de Waal's writings. Whether he's right or wrong, I don't know. I'm hardly a primatologist. But it's also true that for a long time, primatology was dominated by men who were "into" strong "dominance hierarchies" and exaggerated their importance among our closest relatives. This is hardly anything new; well before I got into anything relating to human evolution, I learned(and am still learning, everything I could about wolves. Supposedly, wolves have a "strong" dominance hierarchy in their packs, and, until very recently, most canid researchers were men. And most of these men made much of the "dominance hierarchy" of wolves. Interestingly, more women are getting involved in canid studies, which may, in the future, lead to some interesting results.

In fact, this lupine "dominance hierarchy" is mostly for reproductive purposes(a pack would get awfully large, awfully fast, and run out of territory rather quickly, if all 7-10 wolves in an average pack could be breeding adults). In other words, there's an "alpha pair" that (usually) does all the breeding, but the other wolves in the pack are (usually) all related to the "alpha pair". And eventually, one of the pair may get killed or die of old age or the pack just gets too large, and it splits up, possibly making room for another alpha pair. And even if the pack is "stable", the "alpha-ness" of the pair may be more fluid than meets the eye. I've actually read accounts of some alpha female sneaking off with some wolf other than the alpha male, and breeding.

Which leads me back to Hawks's comment, the New Yorker article, and Frans de Waal. Bonobo behavior is just as variable in its way, as wolf behavior. Which apparently means, as the New Yorker article, and Dr. Hawks, correctly pointed out, that bonobos are sometimes "peaceable hippies" and sometimes something else. Just like humans.

And this, in turn, leads me to the subject of human nature. A lot of people(and this, I think, is where "political" agendas may come in), seem to have the idea that "human nature" is somehow mean and violent. These people like to point to recent wars and conflicts and "ethnic cleansings" as "proof" that humans are "naturally" nasty and violent. This is why some other people with other agendas, sometimes wish "we" were more like those "peaceful" bonobos. Except that human nature --- which, in my opinion has never really been defined --- is a lot of things. Yes, sometimes "we" are nasty and violent. But think of all the saints, prophets, founders of world religions, humanitarians, heroes, who try to do good, and are not violent. Think of those selfess people who try to help poor people out of poverty or care for the very sick, or take in orphaned children or. . . . I think the Gentle Reader will get the idea here. Humans are as variable in their way as wolves, or bonobos. People act nasty or selfless, start wars or bring peace and happiness, often depending on their environments and circumstances.

But some people have a view of humanity that is basically dark and pessimistic. If they are attracted to "agendas", they will be attracted to those agendas that promote such dark and pessimistic views. And they may even work to make these agendas a reality. But in a sense, they are working against, and do not understand, the variability of what is called "human nature" All they are really doing is projecting their own dark views. And this holds true, whether they are projecting onto wolves, bonobos, or humans.

So, if anybody tells you that "human nature is__________(fill in the blank here), you, Gentle Reader, should view such statements with a good deal of skepticism. Because at this moment, we know that there is a "human nature". But at this moment, we don't know what it really is.


Kim Norton said...

Dear Anne

Thank you for pointing me to your blog. I shall return and read it regularly.

I think it is easy to stereotype any group that we do not know vry well. I think that Jane Goodall's work with the Chimpanzees at Gombe enabled her to see them as individuals and we began to see the diversity within the group. And so it almost certainly is with bonobos. They are difficult to study and have not been studied as extensively chimps.

I don not understand the political references - being UK-based - but I would have thought that trying to equate bonobo sexuality with left-wing/hippie/liberal values is as silly as trying to equate Neanderthals with the Flintstones!

Best wishes


Anne Gilbert said...


To answer your question, the problem seems to be that when bonobos were first described in any depth, a lot of people who observed them, noticed that they seemd to "problem solve" by having sex. For some people, this seemed to mean that bonobos were the equivalent of "peaceniks"("make love, not war"; I don't know if you're old enough to remember that slogan or not, but it was popular at the time my hair wasn't gray and my daughter hadn't been thought of yet). Some "women centered" women seem to think bonobos are primate "feminists". I have met women like this; they basically don't know much about primates other than ourselves. I have to admit I don't know much about nonhuman primates, either. Chimps are supposed to be much more "warlike" or something; it has been assumed by many that this chimp aggressiveness is "basic human nature". I've met some people who argue that, too. These observations are based on Jane Goodall's chimps at Gombe. Unfortunately, in order to get the chimps "used" to her, Goodall left extra food out for the chimps, and this particular band started getting, well, pretty aggressive over the food supply. There have been other studies of chimpanzees, apparently, that don't show this level of aggressiveness. So what does that say about "human" or any other nature? I don't know, exactly. But some people here in the US make much of this supposed side of human nature, to justify their own sociopolitical views.

But you are right: you can't generalize or stereotype a group of organisms(incidentally, the same sort of stuff has been going on re wolves, and before I got "into" Neandertals and started writing s-f about them, I was "into" wolves. I still am). You can't call bonobos "left wing hippie primatesA", any more than you can, or should use "Neanderthal" as an epithet. Since you live in the UK, I should perhaps explain that "neanderthaL" is a word often used to describe certain kinds of people(almost always of the male persouasion), who have very "reactionary" views, or are generally considered "crude" or "rude". This project started out as an effort to rescue the Neandertals --- that is, the actual prehistoric people --- from this kind of stereotype. That it became more than that eventually was due to the absolute complexity and wildly divergent views of a lot of people who study them. But to explain, would deserve a blog entry in itself.
Anne G