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.