Among a certain type of (nerdy, obsessive, and probably with too much time on their hands) humans, a debate is raging. Not Democrats versus Republicans, not Yankees versus Red Sox, not even Edward versus Jacob: the debate in question is all about monkeys.


Bonobos. Versus. Chimpanzees. 




Ludicrous as it sounds, many people think this battle has far-reaching implications for our understanding of human nature. Why? Because chimps and bonobos are our closest genetic cousins. Chimps are usually described (probably unfairly) as beasts straight out of a Malthusian nightmare, red in tooth and claw, with tribal warfare and male dominated clans. Chimp-nature is probably not all that bad in reality, as a lot of the aggression observed has probably been caused by their diminishing habitats and the research methods used to study them, but regardless, chimps have given Hobbessians a lot of talking points - they can look at them and claim that humans’ violent nature has been a part of our biology since before our ancestors could even be called humans.


Bonobos, though, tell a different story. As Frans de Waal describes them: “Among wild bonobos there’s no deadly warfare, no male dominance, and enormous amounts of sex. They make love, not war.”  It’s hard to claim that human nature is inevitably ugly, jealous and violent when you’re looking at a peaceful bonobo tribe. 


Thus, bonobos are kind of embarrassing for a lot of evolutionary psychologists. And not only because they’re constantly humping. If one of our closest genetic cousins is so unlike the selfish, jealous stereotype that they’re convinced describes humans underneath the thin veneer of  our modern, civilized personalities, then there are some lines of attack on the theories they’ve built on top of those stereotypes. 


Enter Edward Clint, and his recent hit piece on those poor, friendly bonobos. The purpose of the article, pretty explicitly, is to prove that bonobos really aren’t that great, and that we should want to be like them. Here’s how he starts out:

“While many think humans are or should be more like bonobos, we should hope that is not true. In fact, few would find bonobo sexuality, properly understood, desirable even were it possible to be more like them.”


First off, his claim that we couldn’t be more like bonobos if we wanted to, is completely unsupported, and it’s not clear whether he means we can’t be like bonobos because of our human nature, or because our societies couldn’t function. He’s also wrong in his later claim that anti-monogamy advocates argue “that we may choose to be more like the bonobos and less like the chimpanzees” for the simple reason that chimpanzees aren’t monogamous either.  They’re not as nice about their polyamory as bonobos, at least in situations of scarcity where they’re often studied, but if you’re trying to prove that humans are naturally monogamous, chimps are only marginally less damning to your argument than bonobos. 


But let’s leave those logical missteps alone for now. Why does Clint think that bonobo sexuality is so bad? After all, he admits that “[t]here is much to like about bonobo society… low infanticide, sex for social bonding and conflict resolution, common sexual acts between any two sexes, and very little violence in general. Some of the details also seem uniquely shared by bonobos and humans: face-to-face sex with eye contact, tongue kissing and oral sex, and perhaps orgasm in females and males.” He still claims, however, that on a deeper look bonobos aren’t worth our admiration. Why? Two reasons: he claims that they don’t actually care about each other, and he claims that they have no social fatherhood.  Let’s take these one at a time.


Monkey Monkey Love


Clint claims that “[b]onobos aren’t polyamorous because they aren’t really amorous to begin with”. His evidence? Bonobo sex averages about ten seconds in duration, and because ‘sex is as common and friendly as a handshake’ for bonobos, sexual encounters “may be fleeting, casual gestures never necessarily indicative of emotional connection.”


Of course… sex can’t mean anything if it only lasts ten seconds. That’s why men who suffer from premature ejaculation are incapable of ever caring for anyone, right? I’m going to assume that he doesn’t really want us to take that argument seriously, because there’s no basis for making a connection between length of intercourse and the emotions felt during it. Bonobo sex might not look like human sex, but it looks more like romantic human sex than sex in any other animal, as Clint himself noted. 


And ok, sexual encounters aren’t necessarily indicative of emotional connection, but that’s a far cry from proving that those happy humping bonobos aren’t feeling anything for each other. Bonobos might not be writing sonnets for each other, but isn’t the friendliness Clint admits that bonobo-sex evidences a worthy, amorous emotion? And how can we really know what bonobos think about each other? They can’t exactly tell us. So unless Clint’s experiments involve having bonobos hump in MRI machines to look at what parts of their brain light up, I don’t know what evidence he has for this claim. 


Overall, it’s a tough to argue that because bonobos don’t love each other enough, we shouldn’t admire their societies, or use them as evidence that we didn’t evolve to be monogamous. Chimps aren’t writing each other sonnets either, after all. And really, I see even less evidence that monogamous animals really ‘love’ each other, especially if you’re basing that conclusion off of the biological details of their sex lives. The only evidence there is is their monogamy itself. But there are plenty of monogamous humans who don’t really love each other any more, if they ever did, the same way many monogamous couples who do really love each other often have non-soul-consuming-ultimately-romantic sex. Sometimes they might just want a quickie, because it’s friendly and it’s fun. 


Daddy Issues


Clint’s second argument doesn’t fare much better. Here’s the best expression of it he gives: “[m]ale bonobos do not know which are their offspring, and the young also do not require paternal provisioning of food or protection to successfully reach adulthood. The group cooperative sees to that. So, socially speaking, there are no bonobo fathers, only sperm donors…a primate species can, in principle, jettison this ugly sexual jealousy stuff. All that it costs is what we tend to call love, limerence, romance… and the idea and practice of fatherhood.”


Query first whether human males really know who their offspring are. We certainly try, but estimates are that as many as 10% of us daddies are raising other men’s spawn. And recall that we’ve already debunked his argument that getting rid of sexual jealousy means we can’t love each other, or at least his claim that bonobos prove this.


What’s so bad about bonobo fatherhood, even as Clint describes it? 


Of course, everyone knows that dads can’t really love a kid if it’s not their biological offspring. That’s why adopted kids never have parents who care about them. (That was sarcasm, again, if it wasn’t obvious.) Maybe bonobo dads have less of an intimate relationship with their own offspring, but again, Clint can’t prove that bonobo fathers don’t have emotions for the next generation. Maybe they develop close relationships with kids who they get along with well, regardless of whether they ‘belong’ to them or not. They don’t provide for one kid exclusively, but the whole group cooperative helps to provide for and protect all of the kids. That’s probably better for the kids, whose survival doesn’t depend on the fitness or luckiness of their one dad. 


And again, what evidence is there that monogamous daddies really love and care about their offspring? They may provide for them exclusively, but that’s because no one else is doing so. Ultimately, this is another specious argument. 




Clint goes on to qualify all of his arguments, and make sure that we know he’s not really advocating monogamy, or non-monogamy, or anything. He just doesn’t want us romanticizing bonobos. And that’s fine. He’s right that we shouldn’t romanticize bonobos, any more than we should romanticize hunter-gatherers. But we also shouldn’t hold these poor little monkeys to human emotional standards and use their failure to do so as evidence that they aren’t so great. 


Really, though, the best part of Clint’s article is the comments section, where Chris Ryan, noted bonobo-lover,  takes Clint to task for some of the sloppiness noted above. Clint has no counterargument, admits that he hasn’t read the counterexamples that are readily available on the internet, and then starts complaining that Ryan’s rejoinder was “strongly and disparagingly worded” and that the website the article is published on is about “scientific skepticism”, so that his motivations are irrelevant. 


Keep in mind the fact that Clint feels entitled to make claims about Ryan’s work in his article, even though he admits in a podcast he links to, that he hasn’t read Sex at Dawn. What Clint wants is to be able to get away with sloppy logic and a lack of research, while claiming that his arguments are all ‘scientific’ just because they’re about a subject that can be (but usually isn’t) studied scientifically. 

Monkey Monkey Love

by Jackson Lay

September 8, 2014

This little guy is not a bonobo. But we shouldn't slut-shame her either!

If he doesn't know the kid is his, he can't love him, right?