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August 3, 2007 9:26 AM   Subscribe

Bonobo chimpanzees are commonly thought to be "an example of amicability, sensitivity and, well, humaneness" in the animal kingdom. Ian Parker's Swingers suggests a darker, more savage side to the species that belies popular perception.
posted by Blazecock Pileon (20 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

Relevant comment from (ahem) Monkeyfilter.
posted by dirigibleman at 9:45 AM on August 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

I remember reading about this a bit back, and the thing that struck me was the fact that the leading proponent of the benevolent bonobo theory has never actually seen a bonobo in person.

posted by teece at 10:16 AM on August 3, 2007

I was reading this last night. Interesting how we've gone from seeing ourselves in chimpanzees as agressive and heirarchical to seeing an idealized version of ourselves in bonobos... some of the stories of bonobo behaviour rather contradict that peaceful image, to say the least. In other words, they are social animals who enforce the social order with, at times, the same ruthlessness as the chimpanzees. The female bonobos tend to use their teeth, and bite off body parts to make their point.
posted by jokeefe at 10:55 AM on August 3, 2007

I just finished Demonic Males which features the bonobos prominently. At the time I was shocked both by the strength of the assertions made about bonobos by all parties and by the book's own failure to address the problems that researchers face when writing about this topic.

There is an extrordinary amount of silent (and sometimes not-so-silent) sexism and heteronomativism within academic science that frequently discredits or shuns those who study issues related to these. Reading this article is going to feel like walking through a minefield and it's hard for me to imagine that any study of the subject is as politically neutral as it may claim.
posted by allen.spaulding at 10:57 AM on August 3, 2007

Also, that comment on Monkeyfilter is excellent. I'm glad of the counterpoint.
posted by jokeefe at 10:57 AM on August 3, 2007

Interesting read, thanks for the post.

For those who don't make it through the twelve pages: Bonobos observed in the wild aren't seen having sex as frequently as bonobos in captivity, and some possible instances of murder, including infanticide, are inferred. The origin of bonobo's matriarchal society still isn't understood. Bonobos may not turn out to be the peaceful free-loving hippies they're sometimes made out to be, but they're no less interesting.
posted by Loudmax at 11:08 AM on August 3, 2007

That guy on monkeyfilter doesn't know shit. Pffft.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 11:12 AM on August 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

It's always a problem when you reduce a great ape species to a caricature; the brutal gorilla, the bloodthirsty chimp, the horny and peaceful bonobo, and so on. They're all intelligent, complex species that have social dynamics that we will probably never truly understand.

I also have to wonder what poaching does to the group. I'd imagine that after a decade of orphans growing up after seeing their parents killed by poachers, there would be a lot more violent bonobos than there otherwise would be, assuming the carrying capacity of the region stayed constant.
posted by cmonkey at 11:26 AM on August 3, 2007

I remember watching a documentary on TV about a year ago that showed the dominant male mistreating a very young bonobo (or was it a chimpanzee? I don't remember and I looked for the vid online then and failed to find it. I'll search again after I post this). Five or six females took him out back and really messed him up, almost killing him. He stayed with the group after his wounds healed, but only at a distance. He was permanently shunned. In his place, the females "elected" a smaller, less aggressive male. I mention this, first, because it was an extraordinary thing to see whether bonobo or chimp; second, because it sounds very similar to the story Hohmann tells.
posted by sluglicker at 11:52 AM on August 3, 2007

Haven't found it yet but ran across these 25 short clips from the BBC Natural History Unit.
posted by sluglicker at 1:14 PM on August 3, 2007

A dissent
posted by Danf at 1:45 PM on August 3, 2007

some possible instances of murder, including infanticide, are inferred.

Animals killing each other is not "murder". They don't think that way.
posted by fshgrl at 3:05 PM on August 3, 2007

Animals killing each other is not "murder". They don't think that way.

I don't find that statement to have any meaning. It's either defining murder as a human killing another human (which is is very boring), or pretty much unsupportable.

Chimps and (and bonobos, presumably) are quite capable of something very much like human murder. We're more similar to chimps than we are dissimilar, including that nasty trait. Chimps can hold a grudge. Chimps can be cunning. Chimps can kill, when they know it is "wrong" (for a realistic and meaningful definition of wrong). Chimps can also work together, be loving, and show compassion and altruism, on the other side of the coin.

It's rather hubristic of us humans to assume we are so dramatically different from our closest relatives. We ain't. Our differences are small. They just happened to be enough to push us past a tipping point in the evolutionary equilibrium.
posted by teece at 3:25 PM on August 3, 2007

Animals killing each other is not "murder". They don't think that way.

This kind of excuse-making is why so many animals go free on a suspended sentence for manslaughter apeslaughter.

The Law is very clear. I quote the Lawgiver himself: "Ape shall not kill ape".
posted by No-sword at 3:33 PM on August 3, 2007

It's either defining murder as a human killing another human (which is is very boring)

That is the definition of the word: look in the dictionary.
posted by fshgrl at 4:19 PM on August 3, 2007

and as for chimps knowing it is "wrong" to kill another chimp- I really doubt that without some kind of formal moral or legal structure there even is anything approximating right or wrong.

My dog would kill a cat if she could, even though she knows she's not supposed to chase them. I guess I should turn her over to the cops. Except dogs don't have cops, laws, judges, rules or pretty much anything appraoching a moral code at all.
posted by fshgrl at 4:21 PM on August 3, 2007

Oh yes, fshgrl? Then how, pray tell, do you explain this?

Sorry, I'll stop now.
posted by No-sword at 5:37 PM on August 3, 2007

The New Yorker article says that the popular image of the bonobo is "equal parts dolphin, Dalai Lama, and Warren Beatty". I, of course, aspire to be the same.
posted by lukemeister at 5:46 PM on August 3, 2007


A dog and a cat are drastically different from chimps.

Chimps can murder. They live in social groups, they develop a sense of "right" and "wrong" within that social group, and they can and do violate that sense of right and wrong.

Methinks you might want to learn a little more about chimps.

The social instincts that humans use to build huge societies, and develop complicated systems of right and wrong, are also present, in surprisingly similar form, in our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees.

They are amazingly complicated animals, and much smarter than most humans are willing or able to admit.

On the definition of murder: like I said, boring. It's entirely clear what is meant when one says a chimp commits murder. We can debate that, but pointing to a definition is not debate. At all. If you just want to point to a definition, I'm not able to talk about it intelligently with you, as it's obvious the word is being used beyond the (partial) definition of a dictionary. And that's fine.
posted by teece at 8:57 AM on August 4, 2007

According to this article, a Bonobo ape bit off the tip of a keeper's finger, but the dominant female of the group returned it, and it was reattached.

I would disagree that Chimps can 'murder'. Their mental processes are complex, but they don't have morality as we do; it's a strictly human concept. Without that, they can't really be said to commit murder in the sense that we use the term. They kill.

They display altruism, they care for one another & can develop strong negative emotions, akin to hate, etc. But to define the killing of other Chimp group members as 'murder' is stretching it. They may be far more intelligent than they have been given credit for, but they aren't up to anywhere near our level. It requires a quite sophisticated psychological process to understand the concept of murder, IMHO.

Murder denotes a determination in the practitioner that the action is 'wrong'. In Chimp society, the unmotivated killing of another group member might be seen as bad, the killer to be possibly dangerous, unpredictable or undesirable in the group, but it is not murder. They demonstrably don't have a concept of murder as we do. It is a human concept derived from hundreds of thousands of years of specifically human evolutionary development as societal beings, it is not a Chimp evolutionary necessity to possess such a concept. It's outlandish anthropomorphism to suggest otherwise. There's not a jot of evidence for it.

Chimps regularly kill members of other groups as part of their warring for territory, & presumably it's simply another form of evolutionary tactic to kill in this way. When killings occur within a Chimp group, according to what I have read, they are in response to dangerously dysfunctional behaviour or out of control dominance fights, killings of juveniles usually fall under the definition of grossly malfunctional individual behaviour & are apparently not common, or they are in response to significant stressors.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 9:43 AM on August 5, 2007

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