The Bonobo: Our Better Side?

Primate researcher Frans de Waal believes he has found a society that epitomizes the expression "make love, not war". It is not a commune somewhere in California. In fact the subjects in this case are not humans: they are primates. De Waal says: "As soon as I saw them I realized right away that this was not just some other chimpanzee, it was something quite different."

De Waal is among a growing number of scientists who've come to feel human society could benefit from observing the bonobo, a smallish central African ape that, like the chimp, shares more than 98 percent of our genetic profile. De Waal thinks it is possible the bonobo has retained a few characteristics of an old ancestor we don't recognize in ourselves: "They have longer limbs, smaller hands. They look and act a lot more human-like; also a little bit of a flatter face it seems...and they can walk. When they walk upright, their back is straight compared to a chimpanzee, who always has this sort of stooped walk." Enter the Image Gallery to see some Bonobos.

The bonobo is quite non-aggressive in nature. It is sometimes called the pygmy chimp, or, as in the title of De Waal's book, the "Forgotten Ape", since its discovery has been relatively recent. He says: "Aggression is often implied as a major moving force in our evolution, and here comes the bonobo: it's not completely free of aggression, but it's a much more peaceable, much more sexy creature, than the chimpanzee and maybe also than ourselves, and it shows us some flexibility in our lineage that we had not been aware of."

The relative tranquility of bonobo society, he thinks, may stem from a number of things. One is rampant, almost constant, sex in lieu of aggression: "For bonobos it's a very casual, affiliative activity really, it's a friendly activity more almost than a sexual activity, and they use it to reduce tension."

De Waal also found that among bonobos, the females are in charge. "Rather than being male-bonded," he says, "bonobo society gives the impression of being female bonded"

There was a time at which some anthropologists argued that male bonding is the characteristic of chimpanzees and of our species, and female bonding basically doesn't exist. That time is past, and there are now lots of people who believe very strongly that we also are a female bonded species. As the bonobo is studied more, there is no doubt we will be learning more, not only about them but also about ourselves.

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