Sunday, July 13, 2008

Bonobos are free-love hippies

I ran across a brief mention in a recent National Geographic about how Bonobo society was matriarchal, had less aggression than many other primate societies, and exhibited pan sexuality. It mentioned lots of sexual play, including sexual play being used in reconciliation and to ease tension. I thought I could write up a brief and humorous post based on this. It turns out I had stepped into a bit of politics by accident, and now have to address that as well.

Regarding the claims that Bonobos live in a low-aggression (not without aggression, mind you), sexual, free-love society -- see an excellent piece by Frans de Waal. His paper takes into account both zoo observations and wild, and depicts the highly-sexed Dionysian society I expected to find (ok, Dionysian is inaccurate and a stretch but it sounded good at the time). Sex is not only used for pair bonding, but also to resolve tensions after conflicts, and to settle down before meals -- grand!

Now enter a New Yorker article that attempts to bash this view of the primates. As is typical for New Yorker articles, it is lavishly written with a tonnage of nice prose about the place and the trip and the people and the animals, etc. It sets itself firmly in the politics of the situation (of which I was completely unaware), and pushes against the grain with depictions of violence amongst Bonobos. It is 12 pages long, and written by Ian Parker, a writer -- not a scientist.

It is a nice piece, but people are using it to "prove" that the former view of the primates was wrong. Apparently, conservatives reacted to the idealization of Bonobo society by some groups (lefties, feminists, back-to-the-land types) as a good model of ideal human society. The conservatives hated that idea, and loved this article. They believe it refutes the original claims by the scientists -- which of course it cannot, with only circumstantial evidence. There was a brief row over this which is covered well in this Primate Diaries post.

Last but not least, here is the original author, Frans de Waal, refuting all the bullshit wholesale. You go Frans. Let the observations stand, for crissakes.

In the end, this blog author feels that roving bands of pan-sexual matriarchal primates in the jungles of Africa are a happy thing -- screw the spin doctors.

Enjoy learning more about hairy primates in remote forests,


[photo credit (Frans his'self) in linked article]

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