Chimps and bonobos: How they mirror our own humanity

Illustration of two stylised primates, one blue and green, in front of a background of patterned bananas.
Sasha Zamani/File

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If you’re tired of reading about people, it may be time for you to learn more about great apes, our evolutionary forefathers. It’s easy to develop a fascination with animals that are so similar — and yet so different — from humans. Often, we hold them up as a mirror to try to understand our own humanity.

The perceived dichotomy between chimpanzees and bonobos serves as an example. Both primates belong to the hominid group within the taxonomic family Hominidae, and they are essentially tied as our closest living relative. The average lifespan of the creatures hovers at about 40 years, and they are similar in both size and weight. Unfortunately, both species are listed as endangered. Their similarities might seem to end there: Chimpanzees are thought to live in violent, male-dominated communities, representing the most destructive aspects of our own humanity. On the other hand, bonobos are hailed as peaceful creatures, fostering an elaborate and progressive society.

But perhaps it is not that simple. There might be some good hidden within the hyperaggressive social world of chimpanzees, and the supposed utopia of bonobos might not be picture perfect either.

Chimpanzee society is characterized by male domination and subsequent battles for power. Each group contains an alpha male, although leadership style may vary from alpha to alpha. Some alphas rule through fear — using brute strength to terrorize those who challenge them. Others may practice grooming or form strategic alliances in order to encourage loyalty. Regardless of the alpha males’ strategy, female chimps remain at the bottom of the hierarchy. 

Chimpanzees band together and wage wars against other groups. Two chimp communities can sometimes spend years at war with each other, with the battle ending only once all of the males of one group are either dead or completely dispelled from the area. Despite this violence, chimpanzees are capable of forming lifelong friendships. It is oddly heartwarming to imagine a few chimpanzees choosing to love each other forever while simultaneously hating every other member of their own species.

On the other hand, the contrasting notion of bonobos as “making love, not war” is quite literally true. Sex is used as a glue to hold their entire society together. When the competitive spirit is high — such as when a plentiful food source is discovered — bonobos will engage in sex simply to ease some of the tension. Since reproduction is simply one of the many reasons bonobos might choose to “get it on,” same-sex interactions happen extremely often. For example, after a tense moment of fighting, two male bonobos might give each other reconciliatory hand jobs.

In contrast with the male-dominated chimpanzee society, in the bonobo world, females are the ones who call the shots. Female bonobos form tightly knit coalitions and engage in nonreproductive sex with each other. In a progressive display of sexual liberation, female bonobos are sexually active throughout their entire menstrual cycle, not just during ovulation or when it suits the fancy of the male bonobos.

While this may seem like a feminist utopia, it isn’t quite that simple. Bonobo relations are still heavily defined by status and domination. It is commonplace for a lower-ranking female bonobo to engage in sex with a higher-ranking female bonobo, simply to improve in status. Throughout such an interaction, the lower-ranking bonobo is especially loud and ostentatious, hoping that the wider community will notice the affair. The opposite is also true: A bonobo engaging in activity with a primate of lesser status may try to keep it hidden from the rest of the community.

As you can likely see, many aspects of our human society are reflected in the societies of these great ape species. Clearly, some of the characteristics of bonobos and chimps were not lost through evolution. Therefore, if we want to learn more about ourselves, it makes sense to look at our most recent ancestors.

While love runs in excess within the bonobo community, the same force creates stratification and secrecy — two ideals that, in my opinion, are not worth striving for. While chimps fight aggressively, their upfront aggression may ultimately lead to greater honesty and love. In no way am I suggesting that we should engage in intercommunity warfare, but there might be something to learn from the chimpanzees’ ability to express what they are feeling as soon as they are feeling it.

Perhaps if we are to all live and love together in peace and harmony, humanity needs to exist somewhere between the two great apes species. 

Contact Sarah Siegel at [email protected].