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