What Primates Teach Us About Being Human

The genus Pan is divided into two species of ape; the chimpanzee, and the bonobo.  Both live in the same jungle habitat, have similar physical appearances, and share dietary habits. They are so similar that until recently biologists thought them to be identical, until researchers in the field began to notice stark differences in their behaviors. Chimpanzees are violent, territorial, manipulative, and possess great capacity for cruelty. Chimp alpha males run their tribes with brutal efficiency, subjugating their male followers with violence, exchanging security for sex with the females, and actively lead raiding expeditions into other chimp communities, with no other purpose but to murder, rape, and steal.

There are two species of animals that lead raids specifically to kill strangers. Chimps, and us.

Across the Congo River, which divided the species of a few million years ago, live the Bonobos. Bonobos are much more likeable than chimpanzees, because all they do is have sex. Lots and lots and lots of sex. When a bonobo is introduced to another bonobo, they have sex; when two bonobos get stressed out, they have sex; when a group of bonobos find a fresh patch of delicious vegetation, they celebrate with a bonobo orgy. Group sex, self stimulated sex, gay sex. They have it all, and they have it without the violence or status competitions of their cousins.

There are only two species of animals that have sex for pleasure in this way. Bonobos, and us.

In fact, 99% of Bonobo and Chimp DNA is identical to human beings. What, if anything, can the behavior of these two primates tell us about ourselves?

This question is controversial, and there is an ongoing debate in the field of biology, psychology, and the bourgeoning science of evolutionary psychology, to find the answer. Most agree that because the most specialized organ that is unique to primates is our brain, we can reasonably infer that there will be some behavioral correlation between ourselves, and our two closest living relatives in the animal kingdom.

Scientists still disagree vehemently on the extent of influence, because the differences between bonobos and chimps speak on differing views of human nature and any answer will be extremely politically charged. Chimps seem to confirm the fears of the right, and bonobos fulfill the dreams of the left.

So, which is it then; are we evolved chimps or bonobos? Well, both of them.

The bonobo seems to embody an idealized lefty vision of the world. Matriarchal, non violent, and sexually uninhibited. They don’t kill each other, different communities get along, they pool their resources together, and goddamn it: they get to  have sex with each other, all the time. The recent book Sex At Dawn takes the view that humanity descended more or less from the bonobo tradition, and that monogamy is not engrained in our brains, and in this matter they are probably right. Hardly anyone is completely monogamous, most have had multiple sex partners. Even in relationships, a substantial portion stray. Statistically, if you have had two serious relationships in your life, the odds are close to 100% that in one of them, someone was unfaithful. If you’re in a marriage, the odds of one partner being unfaithful are about 50/50.

Our bodies are testament to our promiscuity as well. A large discrepancy in the sizes of genders indicates that both males and females screw around. Human testicles are larger than average as well, which also indicates moderate to high levels of promiscuity of both sexes. Most of what comes out in sperm, are actually little sperm warriors to stop another man’s sperm from impregnating your current partner. The shape of the penis tip juts out, so as to pull out competitor’s sperm.

While we have inherited the bonobo’s love of sex, we certainly did not inherit their laissez faire attitude towards sharing partners. While polygamy is sometimes practiced, in reality, it is not the norm for one partner to be okay with another’s infidelity. It seems as if we like to fantasize about the idea of polygamy for ourselves, but not our partner, and there’s a simple reason for it, our brains usually revolted by the idea of a lover sleeping with someone else. So much so that infidelity is a leading cause of homicide worldwide. We want to have sex with a variety of attractive people, but we don’t want our partner to; we want to have sex with a variety of attractive people, but we want our partner to not leave us.

This, ladies and gentleman, means we are evolutionary programmed to want to have our cake and eat it, too.

A brief look at pop culture is a compelling testament to our duel natures when it comes to love and sex. John Lennon may have helped write “All You Need Is Love,” but he was also an abusive, possessive, philanderer. Sting was capable of creating “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” but also had “Every Breath You Take” inside his heart, and when Pink sings a raucous anthem about leaving her husband to have sex with Tommy Lee on “So What,” it shouldn’t be forgotten that she begged that same husband to stay with her in “Please Don’t Leave Me.”

Bonobo adherents subscribe to another flawed theory as well. That people are not inherently violent, and our prehistoric ancestors never fought except when territory became overcrowded. Culture is mostly what makes us violent, and at heart, we are more like the gentle bonobo than the savage chimp.

But facts remain stubborn things, and refuse to conform to expectations. While bonobos may be peaceful, humans certainly are not. The history of mankind is one of unceasing bloodshed and savage violence.  While it may be true that humans didn’t fight when there was no space to fight over (though I doubt it), they certainly began fighting immediately after they became crowded, which suggests an innate capacity for violence.

In fact, if violence wasn’t in our natures, we simply wouldn’t be violent. Giraffes, squirrels, and clown fish do not organize groups to kill enemies. If we weren’t at least somewhat prone to violence, then it’d be no more natural to commit a violent act than it would to run on all fours, sleep on a log in a swamp, or greet your friends by sniffing their butts. History would show that man is mostly peaceful, and flare ups of organized violence would be exceedingly rare; but history shows the exact opposite. Since the beginning of recorded time, tribal leaders, emperors, dictators, and presidents have been killing, subjugating, and enslaving their neighbors. There is not a single culture, country, or empire that has ever grown without spilling the blood of another, and I would bet that not a one hour has passed in the last 10,000 years without one person falling dead by the hands of another.

There is just simply no way to overstate this: humanity doesn’t have a capacity for violence, humanity is defined by violence.

I happen to think we are actually more violent than chimpanzees. Chimpanzee’s intelligence is extremely limited, and they act on instinct. Who knows if chimps enjoy killing and raping? Some humans do. History is littered with the corpses of men, women, and children; butchered by mercenaries who cared nothing about the suffering they caused, and signed up to fight for causes they never heard of specifically for the opportunity to pillage, rape, and kill.

Are we monsters then?

I don’t think so, we’re just us. No one blames a shark for being what it is, we shouldn’t condemn ourselves for having characteristics we did not choose, and can ignore.

We have a degree of self-control apes do not have. I might not be able to avoid feeling a little jealous when that six-pack asshole at the gym flirts with my fiancée, but I can easily control and suppress any urge to assault him. I may be unable to avoid looking at a pretty girl in a bikini, but I don’t have to rape her. I might want my neighbor’s television set, but I never seriously consider smashing his head in with a rock and taking it. We also have a degree of morality that neither chimp nor bonobo posses, and this morality can become more inclusive, because like chimps, we are a tribal species — initially hostile to outsiders, but still capable of forming lasting bonds.

Chimps don’t have this capacity, and are doomed to spend their lives squabbling over territory. We can rise above that, and strive toward the noble bonobo lifestyle of peace and harmony.

And all that sex. TC mark

image – Shutterstock

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  • http://www.itmakesmestronger.com/2012/06/what-primates-teach-us-about-being-human/ Only L<3Ve @ ItMakesMeStronger.com

    […] Thought Catalog » Life Add a comment […]

  • Faythe

    Fantastic! Loved the message.

  • http://twitter.com/SodiumSepia Rick (@SodiumSepia)

    This was a real treat. It’s a challenge to give an idea like this a scientifically accurate treatment without making it dull to laymen. I think you succeeded brilliantly. Kudos.

  • http://gravatar.com/nishantjn nishantjn

    This is a great article. I’m sorry you don’t have a lot of comments here telling you that. That might be because this new commenting system really sucks.

  • http://synapticcohesion.wordpress.com synapticcohesion

    We share 99% of our DNA with rats as well. What do rats tell us about ourselves? That we are so similar because we are from the same Creator.

  • CL

    very interesting.

  • Chloe

    This was an excellent article; it reminded me of the book Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn. I’d recommend it if you haven’t read it yet.

  • Whitney

    This is so great! I just read a book called “Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence” by Dale Peterson – it was a fascinating read, so anybody who enjoyed this article should certainly read the book! Very insightful.

    • http://synapticcohesion.wordpress.com synapticcohesion

      “Demonic Males.” The title says it all–it has no basis in science and would be a waste of precious time.

  • http://twitter.com/TheCloudsEssais Jeremy Sheeler (@TheCloudsEssais)

    Yes, if only we could evolve past “squabbling over territory” by devolving back to having “lots and lots and lots of [indiscriminate] sex.” That certainly would be noble.

  • Ejf.

    <3

  • http://www.facebook.com/josephbrillantes Joseph Brillantes

    Love it. Anthropology, pop culture ditty, and social commentary rolled into one. :) Humans are chimps+bonobos with an added dash of morality :p

  • Sale

    “We have a degree of self-control apes do not have. I might not be able to avoid feeling a little jealous when that six-pack asshole at the gym flirts with my fiancée, but I can easily control and suppress any urge to assault him. I may be unable to avoid looking at a pretty girl in a bikini, but I don’t have to rape her. I might want my neighbor’s television set, but I never seriously consider smashing his head in with a rock and taking it. We also have a degree of morality that neither chimp nor bonobo posses, and this morality can become more inclusive, because like chimps, we are a tribal species — initially hostile to outsiders, but still capable of forming lasting bonds.”

    The self-control you are talking about here is culturaly imposed i.e. based not on what YOU would do but on your conditioning and FEAR of the consequences. In war conditions you see who we are much more clearly although some are such even in peace and abudance.

    Nice text though, I enjoyed reading it ergo this response. :)

    • http://twitter.com/TheCloudsEssais Jeremy Sheeler (@TheCloudsEssais)

      Culture is the method through which Humans have attempted to overcome these natural, animal instincts, hence its omnipresence throughout all Human societies. It is a fallacy of the Enlightenment that we would be better off without it. Culture is one of the essential elements that make us Human.

      • http://twitter.com/NiviaCarold Nivia Martinez (@NiviaCarold)

        I see what you are saying but becoming civilized or creating civilization is what humans used to overcome natural animal instincts. Culture is what humans adopted along the process of becoming civilized, ex. religion, customs, & values .

      • http://twitter.com/TheCloudsEssais Jeremy Sheeler (@TheCloudsEssais)

        You are using the word Civilization in a universal sense, as if it this movement away from Nature was simultaneous and uniform, whereas my use of the word Culture for this process implies the multifarious attempts that Humans have employed in its attempts to overcome our natural, animal instincts of sex and violence.

        The reason I took issue with the initial comment was that Sale was trying to say that the self-control mechanisms Humans generally employ are simply indoctrination and are not true manifestations of Self, i.e. aren’t natural. I only wanted to point out that the nature of Humans seems to be as cultural/social/political beings, and the dream of absolute autonomy is a fallacy of the Enlightenment and is unnatural.

        Only philosophers can be truly free, and a philosopher is the rarest of human beings.

  • oliveroars

    Humans share about 50% of their dna with bananas. Hmm…

  • http://twitter.com/NiviaCarold Nivia Martinez (@NiviaCarold)

    Those interested in this article may also want to read http://kevishere.wordpress.com/2011/07/05/part-1-humans-are-blank-ogamous/

    According to the article in the link, pair bonding has only existed for about 10,000 years since we became an agricultural society, while our species has existed for 200,000 years… interesting huh?

  • PiratesLife4Me

    “There are two species of animals that lead raids specifically to kill strangers. Chimps, and us…There are only two species of animals that have sex for pleasure in this way. Bonobos, and us.”

    I would like to point out that this is inaccurate, as dolphins fall into both of those categories as well. Honestly, I don’t believe much of this article is biologically accurate, but I see the point you were trying to get across. It would be much easier to just say “Humans have certain instinctive traits that other animals also have.”

  • trustmeImaDoctor

    I stopped reading when you said how penises are shaped in a way to pull out competing sperm.
    The human population is also far too diverse to generalize into chimps or bonobos. Just my take.

  • matt

    the science here seems sketchy at best…

  • danmckean

    Such a good read!

  • https://www.exerciseyourwhimsy.com/?p=74 Sex Crazed Chimps and World Peace - Exercise Your Whimsy

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