Wednesday, April 27, 2011

I don't want to be a Bonobo

This Post is a reaction on the Post  from “Ariel Cast out Caliban” by Eric Michael Johnson.

There are many things in the world that annoy me: People in the bus who desperately hammer on the “stop” button to open the door, Professors who seem to know where my exact interests are although they haven’t talked in years and stupid ideologies which use biological examples to justify their view on the world.
Although I’d love to talk about all those things (especially the first one) let’s stick to the third one for now.
Every now and then, I encounter the following sentence in some way or another: “We should be like Bonobos.”

What’s really interesting is that the extremes of what could be called “human nature” are represented by our closest living relatives: Chimpanzees and Bonobos, at least if we rely on popular representations of those two species. Chimpanzees are usually presented as egoistic, brutal and aggressive. Whether Bonobos are the ultimate pacifists, their groups are led by the female individuals and conflicts and stress are usually resolved by some way of sexual interaction -instead of just bashing the head of a rival or tearing apart a helpless Colobus Monkey.
One of my favourite German biologists, Hubert Markl wrote in 1983 that all models on human nature usually have two aspects. The first one is the description of the present state of human nature, which is always pretty negative. The second one is the ideologically tainted vision of how humanity should be.

If we use this model on our closest relatives, the Chimpanzees represent our present state, while the Bonobos is the Vision of what we should become. From time to time I encounter this case, be it in the media or from people I meet and it might come up again in the next time, after some of the results of this study from Perelman et al. (2011) get more public attention.
This study, which deals with the Phylogenetic relationships of all primates, found that after the split between Chimpanzees and Bonobos, there was a higher rate of Change within the Genome of Chimpanzees as within the one of Bonobos. To make a long story short: This higher rate of change could lead to the conclusion that Bonobos are closer related to us, then Chimpanzees. Until now it was assumed that both species are equally related to us.
This of course changes everything! Our closely related living relative is the ultimate example for altruism and cooperation. The true picture of our own nature! Once again, Man cut himself from his own natural heritage. Now we simply have to return to our own biological roots and all our problems are solved! I’d bet a large amount of money that someone will write something like that, just a little more elaborated and maybe a little more esoteric. Maybe I should write this stuff myself, put in a book and sell it to bolster my very slim budget.

Jokes aside, my point is as follows:
Both Chimpanzees and Bonobos are just models for our own ancestors. Those Models fit in some cases more and in some cases less well on our past. We can’t just transfer our observations on present day animals into the past, just to help us to support some kind of weird ideology, as we can’t use them to justify acts of brutality against ourselves.
Furthermore, these genetic differences between chimpanzees and Bonobos are by now just statistical differences. We have no Idea if those differences are within regions which are related to behaviour or not.
If we look at ourselves, we can see that we’re capable of both extremes: exceptional brutality as well as exceptional altruism. Bonobos and Chimpanzees could help us to understand how we acclaimed those behaviours and how they’re funded in our own biological heritage. Sure, there’s no potentially World-saving conclusion within this stuff, but we need it, if we want to understand our biological “nature”.

Ideologies are always made by humans; and Primates, especially apes, were always used as a screen on which we can project ourselves on. The Chimpanzees were used for all that’s negative about us, while the Bonobos stand for everything positive. But we must not forget that both species are not “unfinished humans” or “almost human”, they are Apes. They got their own history, as we do. Their history might help us to understand our own history, and therefore our “nature”, in a much better way, but as closely as we’re related to them, they can never be role models for us.


Markl, H. (1983) Wie unfrei ist der Mensch? Von der Natur in der Geschichte. In: Markl, H. (ed.). Natur und Geschichte. R. Oldenbourg, München, Wien. p. 11-40.
Perelman P, Johnson WE, Roos C, Seuánez HN, Horvath JE, Moreira MA, Kessing B, Pontius J, Roelke M, Rumpler Y, Schneider MP, Silva A, O'Brien SJ, & Pecon-Slattery J (2011). A molecular phylogeny of living primates. PLoS genetics, 7 (3) PMID: 21436896

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Fashionably late: The 116th Four Stone hearth.

I know I’m late, so let us don’t waste any more time with weird stories how I managed to completely forget that I canceled my Internet-contract a few months ago, leaving me in a completely Internet-less home and therefore making such mundane tasks like reading Blogs a pretty complicated and time consuming issue.

So instead, let us concentrate on more important things, like Anthropology and Blogs and what happens if you combine those two things. Personal submissions were nonexistent this time, so I dug around and tried to gather all the interesting stuff I can find.

Probably one of the more popular topics was the “Gay Caveman Story”, which was covered by three Blogs:
"The Gay Cavemen" -John Hawks
"Gay Caveman ZOMFG!" -Christina Killgrove
"Gay Cavemen & Buried Shamans" -"Genealogy of Religion"

It’s interesting to see how the most popular story of the last two weeks intertwines with the saddest news this week, as Lewis Binford, the “inventor” of Archeological middle range-theory, died this Monday. Christina Killgrove at (Bone Girl) wrote a nice obituary and although I'm not very interested in Archeology, the news of Binford's death really affected me.
I first heard of Binford’s work as I read Robert Foleys “Just another unique species” where he adapts Binford’s middle Range theory to evolutionary model-building. I still keep this theory in the back of my mind when I try to think about a proper approach to scientific modeling in Paleoanthropology.

On the front of behavioural studies, there are two Posts worth to be mentioned.

I’m happy, that there’s at least one Post which deals with primates in this weeks edition:

Jason Goldman, wrote about a study dealing with contagenious yawning in Chimpanzees.
"Sleeping or empathic: What does yawning mean?"
I yawn a lot, so this is a story in which I’m naturally interested, although I have some problems with the study itself. But on the other hand, I have Problems with almost every behavioural study. But I think, there are some nice things to discuss in this Post.

Same goes with the next Post:
"If I objectify you, will it make you feel bad enough to objectify yourself? On shopping sexiness and hormones, by Cathrine Clancy, of "Context and Variation".

Furthermore, John Hawks wrote a nice little piece about data sharing in paleontology:
"Opening up paleontology" 

The next one already is pretty dusty, but it’s my favourite Post so far in this year and I think everyone in the world should read it. "Evolution: What it is and why humans aren't immune to it." by Zaccharoo over at Lawn Chair Anthropology. Probably one of the best summaries on the general principles of evolutionary theory I’ve read so far.

I wasn’t the only one who had his birthday in the last days. In fact, “This is serious monkey business” turned One year old  a week ago and celebrated this event with a collection of its most popular posts. So, if you haven’t already stopped by, do it right now.

That's it for this week. I really hope you enjoy this edition and I really hope, I'd be able to host another one sometime soon. The next edition (April 27th) is still vacant, so if anybody wants to fill in this position, just tell Krystal D'Acosta.

Let me close this edition with the only funny photograph of an Ape I got (I really need a bigger collection of those).

Dunja, a female Orang-Utan of the Leipzig-Zoo, probably commenting the request of some visitor to "do something".
The Photograph was taken sometime around 2008/2009 by "David B." a good friend of mine and excellent Photographer.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A special Announcement

This Year’s April 13th is a very special day. First of all, it’s my birthday, but there is nothing special about birthdays, since you got them each year on the same day besides, everyone has a birthday. So what makes this date so special to me this year? Well, it’s because it will be the first time that I have the honour to host the “Four Stone hearth”.

The four Stone hearth is a bi-weekly Anthropology (in the broadest sense possible)-related Blog Carnival. This means that every two weeks, one person has the duty to sum up and present a conglomeration about what happened across the whole Anthropology-Blogosphere (I hate those buzzwords). So, if you have a Blog and want to submit one of your posts, or if you found a post from which you thought it might fit within the four stone hearth, just write me an Email (my Address is somewhere on the right sidebar, or under the “about” tab). Depending on the number of submissions I might add additional Posts, even if their authors didn’t submit them on their own.

I’m really looking forward to next week and I’m pretty sure it’ll be a very interesting edition.