A while back Razib linked to this lengthy article in the New Yorker about the field research on bonobos being done by German primatologist Gottfried Hohmann in the Republic of Congo.
If you've read some of the pop-primatology that's come out over the last decade or so, you may have heard of bonobos. They have become something of a favorite in certain circles because early studies of bonobos (only recognized as a species separate from chimps in the '30s, and minimally researched until the '80s) suggested that bonobos were generally much more peaceful in their habits than their close cousins, chimps, in part because they appeared to spend a lot of time have recreational sex.
Bonobos are one of four species of great apes (chimps, gorillas and orangutans being the others) which are the species most closely related to humans among primates. Of these, chimps and bonobos are most closely related to humans, we shared a common ancestor about six million years ago. Chimps and bonobos are even more closely related to each other, their ancestry dividing only about two million years ago.
As modern primatology took off in the second half of this century, chimps received a great deal of attention. Some of this was simply a matter of celebrity in the person of Dr. Jane Goodall. It was also because there were more chimps around, and they were much easier to observe in the wild, since they roam through both deep forest and more open areas -- while bonobos live only in deep forests south of the Congo river.
At a certain time, chimps were romanticized as our less-fallen ancestors. Further research, however, revealed that chimps could be just as violent as humans. Researchers watching wild chimps not only observed fighting, murder, infanticide, cannibalism and rape -- they also witnessed a chimp civil war in which a group split into two geographical bands, the larger of which systematically wiped out the smaller.
Seeing this darker side of chimp behavior inspired a spate of writing about primordial primate brutality, theorizing that war and violence are one of the most basic human characteristics as a result of our primate ancestry.
It was against this backdrop that bonobo research really got going about fifteen years ago. At first, much of the research was done with captive bonobos, for the simple reason that wild bonobos were so illusive that researchs could easily spend months in the rain forests of Congo while catching only brief glimpses of the apes.
This initial research at first suggested that bonobos had a very different temperament than their chimp relatives. Researchers observed bonobos kissing, having sex even when the females were not in heat, and generally carrying on like a bunch of drunken cheerleaders. As if that weren't enough, the bonobos appeared to live in matriarchal groups.
An endangered species of primate, closely related to humans, that has a matriarchal society and appears to spend all its time making "love not war" -- does it get any more exciting for a politically hip grad student? I seem to recall a couple of earnest editorials in the LA Times back when we lived in California wondering, "Is it too late for humans to get back in touch with their inner bonobo?" Or as someone in the above-mentioned New Yorker editorial put it, it appeared that "If chimpanzees are from Hobbes, bonobos must be from Rousseau."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's not beginning to look like all of this may have been a bit premature. Dr. Hohmann's studies of wild bonobos are beginning to paint a picture of a creature not so very unlike its chimp relatives, and critics have pointed out that the studies on excessive bonobo sexuality featured adolescent bonobos living in zoos with not much to do other than the obvious.
One of the things that strikes me in all this is that, even after people have officially given up any idea of heaven or of objective good, there seems to be a very insistent yearning within the human person for some sort of world better than our own. Some of the neo-atheist works coming out lately seem to have a Rousseau-ian vision lurking not at all far beneath the surface. If only people could be truly wiped of all taint of religion, someone like Hitchens seems to think, we'd all be sitting around sipping coffee, hanging out in art galleries, and pursuing discreet affairs -- and everyone would be happy about it.
All this is contrary to the basic experience of life that there is in each of us that temptation towards pride, greed, etc. that allows us to turn any good (religion, love, learning, etc.) into a tool of domination and cruelty. The earthly paradise simply isn't there, either in a modified human society, or in some other species, and yet people (especially those who have given up any idea of a direction beyond this life) can't help looking for it.
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