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Are Bonobos Riot Grrls, Are Primates Feminist-Friendly?

October 28, 2009
Bonobo females

A little girl on girl to get things going / photo, Natalie Angier

I would like to start out by saying I am not a biologist, nor a primatologist for that matter.  But I am an animal lover and not just in a fetishized, put-a-sweater-on-a-dog kind of way.  I appreciate learning more about how animals think, work, and how that relates to us in the giant scheme of evolution (if you believe in that hogwash. just kidding!)

If you’re at all aware of pop themes in animals, or “cute” intersections between women’s studies and biology, you may have heard of Bonobos, one of the Great Ape family, and how they are matriarchal, peaceful, and basically awesome.  Like Chimpanzees, Bonobos share 98.7% of our DNA.  Yet Bonobos present an interesting alternative to the testosterone-driven hierarchy of Chimp societies. 

There seems to exist among Bonobos a type of feminist utopia of sorts. Females, though smaller, often dominate, or co-dominate groups with males, and freely engage in hetero and homosexual relations, the latter which often intimidates males into submission.  One could see how, taken in broad brush strokes, the picture that appears of the Bonobo female is that of a liberated, sexual, powerful, and yet peaceful creature.  Hirsute ladies to aspire to, or at least admire.

But as often happens when scientific research is parlayed into general understanding, critical minutia is lost and information co-opted and extrapolated to fit convenient agendas.  That’s sort of what Ian Parker, at The New Yorker says in a fascinating article he wrote about Bonobos and the study of Bonobos a few years ago.  He gently chides Frans de Waal, the prominent Dutch primatologist, for highlighting the lovely, admirable and utopian, and overlooking the dark sides — infanticide, murder, discordance among Bonobos…

De Waal responds here.  I think there are a few interesting points:  can we learn something from how animals, especially those closest to us — other Great Apes — interact and behave?  What does it even mean that we desire to find ideal pictures of ourselves in other creatures — especially feminist ideas (I admit it, the picture of a group of men cowering at the sexuality, assuredness and capability of a female is sort of a delicious contrast to the persistent misogyny of our century).

And can we emulate other species without anthropomorphizing them, or steam rolling their dark sides to construct a utopia that helps get us through the day?  What is the feminist reading of what we know of Bonobos?  In my opinion, a feminist reading is quite similar to an animal rights approach, and a rights-based approach in general.  We should let the Bonobos be Bonobos, and let the empirical data speak for itself.  Where we need to draw broad conclusions, we need always be aware of our human tendency to make what is unlike, like, and to perhaps shy away from pondering our own darkness.

In fact, aspects of the animal rights movement, a la Peter Singer’s “Great Ape Project,” has close ties to the feminist movement in that both seek to move beyond a heteronormative, androcentric and speciesist understanding of rights, agency, and interrelations, to open the mind to a broader and more inclusive reality.

To boot, I’ve just started reading a book called Beauty and the Beasts: Woman, Ape and Evolution, which promises a very detailed account of great women and their great apes (think Goodall, Fossey and others), but which is so far quite sexist.  The author very much relegates women to the ape-studying world, and vice verse, mostly because, to paraphrase, women naturally want to connect with other beings, have a better stamina to stay out in uncomfortable field sites to observe these creatures, and are more driven to study relationship.  Hrmph, not sure about that one.

I consider this post a work in progress, but just some ape-y food for thought.

  1. October 28, 2009 4:18 pm

    I agree that we should “let bonobos be bonobos” and not try to put our own judgments onto their behaviors. At the same time, I think it’s important that bonobos and chimpanzees offer contrasting pictures of how our common ancestor may have behaved. Did we evolve from a mostly male-driven social system or a mostly female-driven one? Of course, a lot of evolutionary crisscrossing probably happened along the way, but it’s still an important question for us human evolutionary biologists.

    • Jessica Mack permalink*
      October 28, 2009 6:26 pm

      And I wonder what difference it would make if we determined that modern man and woman evolved from a male- or female-driven social system? If it were a female-driven social system, why the persistent misogyny? And would that scientific finding do anything to uproot the long-standing patriarchy of modern man as we know him?


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