"If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin."
- Charles Darwin

Aug 9, 2007

Bonobos and the Politics of Human Nature

Frans de Waal responds in the ongoing debate over human destiny

As I wrote earlier in Bonobo (Re)Visions, Ian Parker’s “exposé” in the New Yorker was beautifully written but wrong on many levels. Now the straw man who Parker claims to have torn down, primatologist Frans de Waal, answers his polemical critic with a new piece in eSkeptic.

What was particularly interesting in the fallout from the original article was how widely the New Yorker piece was referenced by conservative pundits (who often view the magazine as synonymous with the Communist party). Parker turned his romp through the jungle into an attack piece that conservatives could rally behind - if bonobos aren’t as peace loving as we thought then we must be destined to be violent and patriarchal.

Dinesh D’Souza, the Hoover Institution Fellow who joined the Jerry Fallwell loony bin when he blamed 9/11 on liberals, wrote on his blog that

Supposedly bonobos are bisexual apes who engage in incessant and indiscriminate sexual activity as an alternative to power struggles and male wars of domination. I'm surprised the Democratic Party hasn't changed its symbol from the donkey to the bonobo.

Well, maybe the liberals should put their bonobsession on hold for a while... de Waal got it mostly wrong.

Quite obviously D’Souza and the other right-wingers were all too quick to embrace the “human tendency to distort evidence to suit our prejudices” that they were condemning in others. As eSkeptic states in the introduction to de Waal’s article

The spindoctoring of science for political purposes, of course, is a long and dishonorable tradition, so nothing new here in that regard. However, it is interesting that so many people wish to deny the undeniable relationship between humans and chimps, and at the same time cannot seem to help finding political meanings in primate behavior that supports either a liberal or conservative agenda.

Bonobos and chimpanzees are equally related to humans (between 98.6% and 99.4%). This is because we shared a common ancestor with both approximately 6 million years ago. The ancestors of bonobos and chimpanzees split off from each other roughly 3 million years later. Behaviorally we share aspects with both: male coalitions and border raids in chimpanzees, female coalitions that reduce male coercion in bonobos, brutal dominance competitions in chimpanzees and cooperative interactions for a common goal that are more prominent in bonobos.

Anatomically we share more in common with bonobos, including the more frontally located clitoris and vulva that allows for face-to-face mating. We also share bonobo’s greater penchant for using sexuality for nonreproductive purposes and in partner combinations not strictly approved of in the Bible.

That we’re equally related to both species, and that we find similarities with both, is exactly what you would expect. However, it says nothing about what we’re destined to be. Biology is not destiny, whether you’re arguing as a liberal or a conservative. However, biology does provide a framework that our destiny lies within. We’re not going to create a society based on selfless cooperation any more than we are of selfish individualism. The reason is we’re apes, not termites or cats. What the differences between chimpanzees and bonobos represent, however, is that what previous generations thought was outside of that framework is now safely tucked within. The politics over human nature will undoubtedly spin on in the frantic whirlwind of soundbytes and personal attacks. Meanwhile the gears of science will continue to operate, slowly separating the solid evidence from the rubbish that the pundits expel.

For more on this see my post Bonobos "Red in Tooth and Claw".

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Dr. Susan Block said...

I'm honored to have my Counterpunch article "Bonobo Bashing in the New Yorker" linked to by the world’s foremost bonobo expert, Dr. Frans de Waal, who has mounted an excellent defense of bonobos against the New Yorker “Prosecutor” Ian Parker’s trumped up charges that they are really killer apes, or at least aren't “nice” enough to qualify for the nickname of “The Make Love Not War” chimpanzees. Counselor de Waal linked to me as an expert witness in the matter of whether genito-genital-rubbing, often with apparent orgasm, is indeed a form of sex; of course it is. As De Waal prudish primatologists and journalists "will say that bonobos are 'very affectionate,' when the apes in fact engage in behavior that would get you quickly arrested if shown in the human public sphere." The New Yorker's "brave explorer" utterly fails to make his case. Bonobos are acquitted of all bogus charges, and now can go back to fondling each other with “affection.” And maybe we can go back to appreciating them, studying them and trying to save them from imminent extinction. Hoka-Hoka! Peace through pleasure. Bonobos forever

Paul said...

It surprises me such an article was published in the New Yorker of all places. This is a blow to their reputation for excellence.

On the other hand, it does not surprise me at all that some people who value politics above truth would jump on the chance to claim their side has scored. Still, I think society would be better off if those folks could take a lesson from the bonobo -- instead of wasting everyone's time dishonestly spinning science, their time would be much better spent in mutual masturbation.