Slate author suggests that we stop idolizing chimps and model our society on bonobos

When someone sent me the title of this Slate piece, “Why do we idolize chimps when we could be imitating feminist bonobos?“, I was sure it was a parody—perhaps from The Onion.


But no, I don’t think so—or else it’s parody that isn’t good because it’s so close to seeming real without a hint that it’s farcical. The author, Christina Cauterucci, was also a PuffHo editor (surprise!), and I can’t find any evidence of a scientific background.

At any rate, most of us know two things. First, chimps and bonobos, the latter now regarded as a species distinct from the common chimpanzee (former P. paniscus, latter P. troglodytes) are our closest living relatives. They’re equally closely related to humans, with our joint common ancestor living about 6 million years ago. The two chimp diverged from their own common ancestor about 2.4 million years ago.

Second, the social systems of the two chimps—bonobos were formerly called “pygmy chimps”—are quite different, with bonobos having a greater diversity of sexual behavior, more female/female bonding, and a pervasive use of sexuality as social glue. (Some have argued that in the wild, rather than in zoos or enclosures, the difference between the species is not as great, but let’s accept it for the time being.)

Another fact: we have no idea, given this divergence, what the behavior of the chimps’ common ancestor was like, nor, of course, do we have behavioral information about our own common ancestor with the chimps. Sadly, though, people have drawn moral lessons from chimps, saying that we should be more “bonobish” than “chimpish”, although there’s nothing in the evolutionary tree—or in science itself—that suggests such an “ought”. If we want to change our behaviors, it’s just dumb to try to find animal models and then say, “We should be like them.” What’s the point?

Yet that is exactly what Cauterucci does in her piece. She has a feminist ideology that she wants to see accepted in modern society (and I don’t disagree with her), but then projects it onto the bonobos, seeing them as “true feminists”, and then reverse-engineers this projection back onto humans as an “ought.” But there’s no need to draw any moral lessons from primates, even from our closest relatives. If we want to promote women’s equality, we can do it by applying rational arguments and empathy to modern human society, with no need to look to other species as models.

But Cauterucci can’t resist, and goes to ludicrous lengths to promote bonobos, diss chimps, and even goes so far as to promote what I see as misandry in humans. But let’s look at what she wrote—the kind of stuff that made me think this was a parody.

Bonobos, the Central African apes known for their libertine sexual behavior, have taken the advice of Madeleine Albright to heart. “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other,” the former secretary of state has often said, most notably at a February Hillary Clinton rally to great public censure from female Bernie supporters. If she’s right, female bonobos have earned a plot of prime real estate in heaven: They regularly band together to put aggressive males in their place, going so far as to bite off penises or toes if need be, all in the name of sisterhood.

A recent New York Times piece chronicles the many bonobo behaviors we humans should try to emulate, and they make women’s self-defense classes sound like Beanie Baby tea parties. In what might be the best anecdotal lede in Times history, four male bonobos “display their erections,” excited by the “exceptionally pink and swollen” rump of a fertile female, while catcalling her and rattling the branches on her tree. Three older, more senior female bonobos descend on the lecherous males; together, the four females manage to capture one of them. “He was healthy, muscular and about 18 pounds heavier than any of his captors,” the Times recounts. “But no matter. The females bit into him as he howled and struggled to pull free.” He eventually escaped, but didn’t come back to his bonobo community for weeks. Upon his return, missing the tip of one of his toes, he avoided his peers.

Take away the toe-biting (maybe), and this is exactly how human women could and should deal with rapists, abusers, and serial sexual harassers: Scare them away by any means necessary, expel them from the safety of an enabling social system, and ostracize them until they prove themselves reborn as humbled feminists.

“Take away the toe-biting (maybe)??” It’s indeed possible that male bonobo’s sexual behavior has common roots with that of human males, but we needn’t construct societal oughts from the way that females behave. I, for one, think that biting off the fingers and penises of catcallers is a bit extreme. And can we really see randy bonobo males as the primate equivalent of “rapists, abusers, and serial sexual harassers”? If you’re willing to say that, then you’re going the route of evolutionary psychology, but adding a veneer of human morality to it. Think about how you’d characterize male ducks or fruit flies! For ducks certainly have a “rape culture” more violent than do chimps.

In fact, humans have police, laws, and courts to deal with this behavior, so we needn’t resort to penis- and toe-biting. In that difference lies much of Cauterucci’s fallacious analogy.

Then comes the chimp-dissing:

The sad thing is that bonobos are equally close relatives to humans as chimpanzees, but we look to the latter far more often for clues about the roots of our species. Bonobos are light-years ahead of chimps in their sexual evolution. [JAC: this is completely bogus: one species isn’t “more evolved” than another. That kind of hierarchy was debunked a century ago. Each species is evolutionarily adapted to their environment] As the Times notes, they kiss with tongue, give one another oral pleasure, have sex while facing each other, and use their opposable thumbs for what our maker intended: making sex toys. Chimps just poke boring old sticks into termite mounds. They also have far stronger bonds between males than between females (the opposite of bonobos), kill their babies with relative frequency (bonobos never do that), and make females mate with every single eligible male (unlike bonobos, who practice some ape-like form of affirmative consent).

So why have we chosen chimps as our nearest and dearest genetic relatives? Seems like the evil machinations of a patriarchal, sex-negative, infanticidal rape culture to me. Of course, bonobos do condone adults having sex with bonobo children, a behavior humans have rightly discouraged. But chimpanzees are murderous aggressors. No species is perfect.

That second sentence sounds like pure parody, but I don’t think it is. I wonder what Jane Goodall would have to say about it. But seriously, no biologist now looks to chimps rather than to bonobos to trace the roots of our species. Historically, the common chimp was the subject for such work (Goodall being the most important researcher); but since we realized that there were two species of chimps with divergent social systems, nobody I know favors one above the other as the “evolutionarily accurate” wellsprings of our behavior.

As for dragging patriarchy, sex-negativity, and “rape culture” into animals, well, that’s pure anthropomorphism. And I point out again that either Cauterucci is just seeing cultural analogies here without any genetic basis, in which case there’s nothing to learn about the roots of human behavior, or she’s seeing genetically based similarities in behavior, in which case she’s adumbrating a form of evolutionary psychology—evolutionary differences between human males and females—that Leftist feminists often reject. (I myself think that a fair amount of modern human behavior—particularly sexual behavior—does have evolutionary roots, but I also think that we can transcend our biological heritage when it’s inimical to modern society.)  Her suggestion that bonobos are “light-years ahead of chimps in their sexual evolution” suggests that Cauterucci does see a genetic basis in their divergent behaviors.

At any rate, Cauterucci is wrong to say that chimps are our modern paradigm of behavior, that they are “idolized” above bonobos, and that we should model our society on bonobos. Yes, of course women deserve to be free from harassment, and treated as legal and moral equals to males, but do we need to look to bonobos to effect that? Bonobos don’t have any sense of intellectual feminism, which is a purely human concept. Cauterucci suggests, in fact, that their “feminism” is evolved and not chosen. At the end of the piece, in fact, one gets a sense that Cauterucci glories in the male-bashing of bonobos, which of course isn’t something that our species should indulge in, either:

A California primatologist told the Times that bonobos “should give hope to the human feminist movement.” I would argue that the trend toward ironic misandry in modern pop feminism indicates that we’re already halfway to bonobodom. Imagine what glee a high-ranking bonobo female would take in eating her daily helping of insect larvae from a mug labeled “male tears.”

I can’t see why bonobos should give any hope to feminism—any more than common chimp should give hope to the men’s rights movement. This is what you get when you have a toxic combination of an ideological agenda combined with an ignorance of biology. (That, by the way, accounts for the frequent dismissing of evolutionary psychology by the regressive left).

But maybe Cauterucci is just pulling a big Sokal-esque scam on us, and Slate has bought it. And perhaps I’ve just wasted my time. You tell me!

But if it is a parody, it’s deceived a lot of people who read it as real, and given them misleading messages about evolution and the naturalistic fallacy.


Sexual bonding in bonobo females (photo from BBC)



  1. Neil
    Posted September 16, 2016 at 1:20 pm | Permalink


  2. Merilee
    Posted September 16, 2016 at 1:35 pm | Permalink


  3. Flemur
    Posted September 16, 2016 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    She has a feminist ideology … and even goes so far as to promote what I see as misandry in humans.

    Wow. I’ve never heard of anything like that before. /sarc

    “exceptionally pink and swollen” rump

    So they were “asking for it” (!)

    As for “good behavior”, there are about 5 to 8 times as many wild chimps as bonobos.

  4. Randall Schenck
    Posted September 16, 2016 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I suspect you are correct here. A case of an activist of sorts going out of her area of understanding to compare animal behavior.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted September 16, 2016 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

      Someone who is doing a “feminist reading” of animal behaviour. She hasn’t figured out that this approach doesn’t work outside of literary exercises.

  5. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted September 16, 2016 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    A matriarchal human society would also have its ills, but I have felt that the world would be a better place today if women ran things.

  6. rickflick
    Posted September 16, 2016 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    It’s hard to distinguish from and Onion piece. I’d say it’s not though – recognizing the sad state of Slate and other opinion sites. They want to catch clicks more than they want to build a reputation for quality journalism.

  7. Taz
    Posted September 16, 2016 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    I worry that idiots like this author are damaging the feminism “brand”.

  8. Diana MacPherson
    Posted September 16, 2016 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    Damn! That would have been the perfect headline for the headline contest!

  9. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted September 16, 2016 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    I thought bonobos were notorious for shagging all the time.

    Free love. Works for me 🙂

    But I suppose one of those damn feminist bonobos would put a hex on it…


    • rickflick
      Posted September 16, 2016 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

      “…I suppose one of those damn feminist bonobos would put a hex on it…”

      No, actually, I think they’re in on it too. An orgy if you want a good term.

  10. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted September 16, 2016 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    It gets more Onion-like with every line.

    “use their opposable thumbs for what our maker intended: making sex toys.” I just checked with the local representative of Our Maker. He’s still spluttering into his cassock.

    “bonobos do condone adults having sex with bonobo children, a behavior humans have rightly discouraged.”
    – I have a vision of human morals missionaries wandering around the bonobo troop tut-tutting at the offending adults.


    • Posted September 17, 2016 at 2:59 am | Permalink

      + 1 for the “Our Maker” bit.

      My colleagues once had to obtain mouse embryos. They caged pubertal females together with adult males (the most fertile combination) and joked: “We are molesting minors!” Later, I heard a Dutch team complain that their ethical committee had rejected this setting and so spoiled their planned experiment.

  11. Uommibatto
    Posted September 16, 2016 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    If this were merely an “Oh, isn’t this interesting?” article about some of the primary differences between chimps and bonobos, it would be a lot more helpful to the general public.

    But to turn this into a defense of a specific -ism seems a bridge too far. It reminds me of the satirical book “The Pooh Perplex,” which contained essays analyzing “Winnie-the-Pooh” based in different literary critical styles to support each specific perspective; e.g., a Marxist reading of Winnie-the-Pooh’s relationship to Christopher Robin.

    Note how the author revels in the bonobos’ behaviors that fit her agenda, but balks at this one: “Of course, bonobos do condone adults having sex with bonobo children, a behavior humans have rightly discouraged.”

    How is this cherry-picking of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors any different than, say, reading certain books revealing Very Important Truths and keeping the “good” messages and ignoring or downplaying the “bad” messages? How does the author know what to keep and what to leave out?

  12. Joseph Lapsley
    Posted September 16, 2016 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    There is a lot to learn from comparing Bonobos to Chimpanzees, and both to humans. Sexually humans are more like Bonobos than Chimps in many ways. The two evolved in different environments–Bonobos in a more resource-rich one. Chimps are tougher, no doubt about it. Bonobo societies have parallels with matrilineal human groups. The author may have drawn out her own lessons in a rather bald way, but that’s journalism. Vanessa Woods “The Bonobos Handshake” is a good book, she studies them in Africa.

  13. colnago80
    Posted September 16, 2016 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    As a wag once opined, Chimpanzees make war and Bonobos make love.

  14. Christopher
    Posted September 16, 2016 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    I won’t repeat what came out of my mouth when I read this. I don’t think PCC would appreciate that many expletives on this site.

    Why don’t these morons just go full-out. Admire and base their lives on the Wolbachia bacterium that when it infects woodlice, it turns of the gland that make the male hormones thus leading to a population of females only?* Wouldn’t that be closer to this anti-male ideal perpetrated by the new feminists? Crap like this is why I refuse to call myself a feminist (yes, I used to identify as a man who was a feminist) and now will only refer to myself as a humanist. However, every article like this, every encounter with another human, every day that goes by tilts me so much closer to misanthropy.

    *(Jones, Steve, Y: the Descent of Men, p. 30)

  15. Posted September 16, 2016 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    Who “idolizes” chimps? She writes “we” as though it is a common position. Is there *anyone* who idolizes chimps? Has anyone, anywhere, ever said it’s a problem of humanity that we don’t act more like chimps? I can’t stand this type of headline and this type of article. People will publish anything these days. How can they do this without feeling shame and embarrassment? I guess the author is too ignorant to know she should be embarrassed by this, but don’t they have editors?

    • Posted September 16, 2016 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

      P.S. – GET OFF MY LAWN!

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted September 16, 2016 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

      And who calls bonobos feminists? When was the last time you saw a bonobo express an opinion on the burkini?

  16. Posted September 17, 2016 at 12:56 am | Permalink

    “First, chimps and bonobos…are our closest living relatives. They’re equally closely related to humans, with our joint common ancestor living about 6 million years ago.”

    Well said. Our species is not descended from either chimps or bonobos but from a common ancestor. Thus, the social arrangements of chimps and bonobos may suggest something about the social arrangements of our common ancestor, but perhaps not so much about humans.

    Except, as primatologists have pointed out, we seem to share some characteristics of both our cousin species.

    You say that Christina Cauterucci does not have scientific credentials. She may have found these ideas in the book Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence, by Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson, 1996. Richard Wrangham is a famous anthropologist.

    This is an eminently forgettable book relegated to a high shelf. Big deal: chimps use aggression.

    No so, the book, Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape by Frans B. M. de Waal (primatologist)and Frans Lanting (photographer). This is a stunning book mainly because of the photography. It took me about 10 seconds to find it on a low shelf.

    Because I suppose it is a big deal that when one bonobo band meets a band of bonobo strangers they make love and not war.

    So I reveal my confirmation bias. In my own experience modern humans are more like bonobos than chimps.

    To be sure, there are demons to be found in all countries, but for over 50 years I have lived and worked in over 15 countries on all continents (except Antarctica) and there I have found friendship and love.

    A guy once shoved a sub-machine-gun into my face and then, after introducing me to his wife and son, invited me to a fiesta. What I said to him was, “Es su niño allí?” (Is that your child there?)

    Language makes a huge difference between human and ape behavior.

    These books and articles tell us more about their authors than about the apes they study.

  17. Marvin L.
    Posted September 17, 2016 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    What surprised me more than the “science” of the piece (all too common these days, sadly) was Jerry correct use of the naturalistic fallacy (is-ought distinction, instead of “it’s natural, so it’s good”). Well done!

    (I’m not suggesting some lack of intellectual quality from our host, but quite the opposite: rare is the person that addresses the fallacy by its name. More a pet peeve of mine that i felt the need to address, really)

  18. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted September 17, 2016 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    They’re equally closely related to humans, with our joint common ancestor living about 6 million years ago.

    Unless someone has found some extremely well-dated fossils in the last few weeks, of which I haven’t heard, there’s a million or two years uncertainty on that date.

  19. Posted September 19, 2016 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    I’ve always said (in gest, mainly, but also somewhat seriously) that bonobos are sexy apes, chimpanzees are violent apes, and alas, humans are violent sexy apes.

    Which is not to say we should “idolize” anything.

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