Bonobo blowback

4 minute read

Following on last month's New Yorker article about bonobos (my comments here), Frans de Waal has penned a response (no permanent link yet; this link may stop working after a week or two). De Waal points out what he sees as a political agenda in Ian Parker's article:

The main message of Parker's piece could of course have been that fieldwork is no picnic, but instead he went for profound revelation: bonobos are not nearly as nice and sexual as they have been made out to be. Given that the bonobo's reputation has been a thorn in the side of homophobes as well as Hobbesians, the right-wing media jumped with delight. The bonobo "myth" could finally be put to rest. Parker's piece was gleefully picked up by The Wall Street Journal and Dinesh D'Souza (yes, the same one who blamed 9/11 on the left), who accused "liberals" of having fashioned the bonobo into their mascot. D'Souza urged them to stick with the donkey.
This might all have been amusing if it weren't for the fact that these are not just political skirmishes. At issue is what we know. Parker presented his trip as a fact-finding mission that had unearthed revolutionary new insights. His message was that bonobos are killer apes, just like their cousins, the chimpanzees. The animal kingdom remained "red in tooth and claw," as it ought to be.

I have to say, I don't buy this idea that the New Yorker is sending out right-wing marching orders. Still, de Waal's point is well-taken -- certainly, there are many who want to push the idea that primates are not peaceful gentle creatures, because it confirms their own view of human nature. Certainly, bonobos are a target for such beliefs, since people have a perception of bonobos that is way beyond their real behavior. Up to now, that perception has fit a stereotype of peace-loving hippie primates. As de Waal points out, that stereotype has gotten them attention, increasing the opportunities to research them. But pushing the stereotype always risks that someone will pop the bubble.

I don't think that Parker's article was very bubble-popping; it was certainly a lot more reasonable than most of the treatments of science in the New Yorker, or Atlantic, or any number of other "thinking" magazines. The shift in the scientific view of bonobos that he describes is genuine. For example, a 2004 book review by Jennifer Rybak includes this passage:

In the process of identifying the variability among chimpanzee and bonobo populations, it becomes clear that the distinction between the two species is not as clear-cut as previously thought. While certain species distinctions still hold true, such as female- vs. male-dominated societies, and differences in tool use, other distinctions are brought into question. This is largely because the taxonomic grouping of these two species has been based on incomplete behavioral data. However, the data presented in this section illustrate that as we learn more about population-specific differences within each species, the distinction between the species becomes more blurred (Figs. 1.2-1.5, p. 23-24). For instance, while Mahale and Gombe chimpanzees are taxonomically similar, and Wamba and Lomako bonobos are similar, the chimpanzee populations of Bossou and Taï forest vary in their placement along the taxonomic spread. As an additional example of these behavioral distinctions exemplified throughout the book, Matsumoto-Oda (Chapter 12) suggests that "the gregariousness seen at Mahale might not be characteristic of chimpanzees in general" (p. 177). Since a great deal of our understanding of these species is based on a few specific groups, it seems that the full breadth of Pan behavior is not yet well understood. Thus, it becomes obvious to the reader that it is difficult to say whether or not chimpanzees and/or bonobos have specific behavioral repertoires, a theme present throughout the remainder of the book.

That's in a review of the 2002 book Behavioural Diversity in Chimpanzees and Bonobos, by Christophe Boesch, Gottfried Hohmann and Linda Marchant. The book's theme is that our perception of bonobo-chimpanzee differences is changing as a result of our greater understanding of behavioral variation in both species. Obviously, this reflects not only changes in our understanding of bonobos but also chimpanzees, as behavioral variation among field sites has become more and more apparent.

To my mind, the most important point that de Waal makes in his essay is that bonobos don't fit any stereotype -- like any other primate, they are aggressive in some contexts. He notes the ways in which he has argued for a more nuanced view in his publications and books. That will, of course, continue, and the challenge is for anthropologists to make the more nuanced view a feature of their own thinking and teaching.


de Waal, F. 2007. Bonobos, left and right: Primate politics heats up again as liberals and conservatives spindoctor science. eSkeptic Aug. 8, 2007.

Boesch C, Hohmann G, Marchant LF. 2002. Behavioural diversity in chimpanzees and bonobos. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Rybak J. 2004. Chimpanzees and bonobos: more similar than we thought? Am J Primatol 63:245-249. doi:10.1002/ajp.20055