Monday, February 1, 2021

Our Inner Bonobo vs Our Inner Chimp

Annamaria on Monday 

Thanks to advances in genome research, we can now prove that our closest evolutionary relatives on this planet are bonobos and chimpanzees.  It is only in the last few years, though, that researchers have begun to study in earnest how natural section made us who we are today.  Evolutionary anthropologist Evan L. MacLean of Duke University, who who published the chart above only five years ago, compared traits of our primate cousins as a step in defining how we got to be us.

Take a look at MacLean's chart.  We know that all of us humans are capable of both empathizing and systematizing. That said, I am - simplistically - I admit, calling the (ahem) lefthand  dominant traits our inner bonobo and the righthand ones our inner chimpanzee.


When studying these species, researchers find that chimps live in patriarchal societies, with a ruling "alpha" male. All males are ambitious and can be quite violent. Down-rank males form coalitions to challenge the top male. Brutal, bloody, sometimes fatal battles can ensue. (Sounds like Game of Thrones, no?) Ambition really asserts itself when it comes to fights for who gets to mate with the females. And male chimps will kill offspring of their rivals to ensure that their own offspring survive. Likewise, they are unlikely to share food.  Males eat first.

Bonobos are socially just about the complete opposite.  Societies are matriarchal and peaceful and far less hierarchical.  Females form groups, and although both genders find food, females oversee how it is shared. Offspring eat first.  And sharing is pervasive among their behaviors. They readily share their food with complete strangers.  In fact, xenophilia and trust are a bedrock for bonobos, and essential to their--at this moment--tenuous survival.

Among bonobos, sex - both heterosexual and homosexual - is a way to keep the peace, make friends, avoid violence, and find comfort. Unlike the sexual domination practiced by other primate species, there is no infanticide among bonobos because there is no way of knowing which offspring is whose.  

So are we more like bonobos or more like chimps? Well, there is no difference in how much genetic material we share: 98.7% both cases. There are ways in which we are more physically like bonobos.  Unlike chimps, they have upright skeletons and relatively long legs, so they can walk upright more easily.  They also have long hair on their heads.  Most interesting, I think, is that bonobos brains have more gray matter than chimps in areas that control emotions and impulses.

Certainly, to a very great extent, humans have - as a species - spent the last several millennia acting much more like chimps than like bonobos. These dominant behaviors have been firmly imbedded in cultures all over the globe.  The three major religions have all been male-dominated and more or less hierarchical. They have also laid down strict rules controlling female sexuality. Nations and their governments have enshrined male dominance in laws and practices.  Primogenitor laws have kept wealth and power in the hands of men.  

These cultural norms persisted pretty much through the first half of the last century, but recently, albeit at a snail-like pace, those norms have begun to change.

The recent rise of nationalism, white supremacism, and xenophobia is a backlash against these changes.  They are a defense of chimpanzeeism if you will.  The poor at-risk bonobos are a threatened species thanks to human occupation of what used to be their territory. But perhaps, (I pray) their genetic propensities are resurgent in human behavior.  

At least, we can say that the inner bonobo in many of us has begun to actively assert itself.  Look here and see the progress we have already made:


  1. Yes, I'm in the pro-bonobo camp.

    It's not only the slide away from patriarchal society though that's causing the nationalism, xenophobia and white supremacy to rise. It's also living in an increasingly multicultural, multiethnic, multireligion country which some people can't adapt to and will fight to the bitter end. There is also the loosening of gender roles and more expressions of personal liberation. The stick-in-the-mud chimps want to go backward about 100 years, maybe more.

    1. Right you are, Kathy. I think of people's impulses toward the "me first" attitude, the right to subjugate and hate those who are different are all wrapped up with male dominance. Men have been pretty much completely in charge. and white men in p[articular. The trends you rightly cite here are forcing them to compete for society's goodies with all sorts of people who used to be their underlings. And not just white meant. The same is true for a large percentage of men regardless of race or creed. It enrages those who feel robbed of what they have assumed is their right to superiority. Within my admittedly simplistic analogy, that's chimp behavior. And since human cultures have trained them to revel in their "manhood" for millennia, we cannot expect half the human race to turn on a dime. Our current situation in the USA, and in other places around the globe, I think, stems from the rise of demagogues who see that they can whip up that anger in their own lust for power.

  2. That video gave me the chills! I immediately feel better when I see governments in which there are that more women (bonobos) and fewer men (chimps) in government. Rwanda continues to be number 1, with a wide margin of 61% of parliamentary seats being held by women. Cuba is second with 53% (according to
    The US is tied with Mali at number 67 with 27% women in government

    1. I had a similar reaction, Kwei. I was already planning on this topic for my blog today, when I friend sent it to me. It brought tears to my eyes the first time I saw it. It gave me hope that the dichotomy I was going to write about was already moving in, may I say "our" direction.

  3. A well-timed and thought-provoking blog, Annamaria... thank you. It's easy to understand how defensive many males feel, and heartening that an increasing number see problems with the Chimp approach... How do we help Bonobo approaches thrive? Is pushing for greater female participation in government enough? With most jobs still organised around corporate convenience, many women still carry the weight of home and family duties. These sap energy and time, and late entry to political and job pathways is disadvantageous. I hoped that lockdown would stimulate workplace innovation and increase opportunities for parents to share duties more equitably, but old workplace habits are quickly creeping back.

    1. True. True, PCC. The pace of change is slow in both sectors, I think. Women have been far more drastically affected by the job losses this past year. The worst are the suffering female heads of household. Having more women in politically powerful positions, I think, can help in two ways. By making government rules and programs more supportive of their problems and their needs. Also, they will inspire girls to be more confident when it comes to what they imagine they can achieve,

  4. Yes, women have been hard hit by job losses, some 2.2 million left the workforce. And some 5.2 million jobs held by women are gone. Disproproportionally hit are Black, Latinx and Indigenous women.

    I certainly am pro-bonobo and pro-women. But not all women get my respect. They have been pro-war women leaders and racist women. And there were women at the siege on the Capitol, and a wealthy right-wing women financially backed that attack. And let's not forget how many women (white) voted for the liar/misogynist/racist in chief.