Here’s what humans can learn from them. Who run the bonobos world? GIRLS!
August 3, 2016 By Ally Hirschlag (Upworthy.com)
Hey ladies, you know that uncomfortable moment when you’re at a bar with your girlfriends and some sketchy dude comes over to hit on one of you?
Maybe this dude elbows his way into your conversation or maybe he leans too close and tries to buy a round of drinks. Then maybe he not-so-subtly drapes a sweaty hand on one of your shoulders? Yeah, it sucks.
If that sounds familiar to you, then you’ll probably recognize what happens next because it’s kind of awesome: Your friends close ranks and block the dude’s unwanted approach.
Even more awesome? It turns out this behavior isn’t limited to humans.
Female bonobos have been observed employing a similar type of of defensive behavior toward aggressive male bonobos when a female in their group feels threatened.
In fact, according to a four-year study on bonobos (cousins to chimpanzees) conducted in the Congo by the Primate Research Institute at Kyoto University, female bonobos purposely form all-female groups to keep aggressive males at bay.
The most surprising thing the Kyoto University study found is that these groups of protective female bonobos aren’t usually related. They’re made up of females of all ages from different families, with the older bonobos looking out for the younger ones by keeping them in the center of a protective circle.
The study also found that female bonobos from different families were incredibly tolerant of one another, and that female-on-female bonobo aggression is very rare.
Nahoko Tokuyama, leader of the study, believes this ability to get along with one another (without the posturing and displays of dominance that male bonobos are prone to) is the key to female dominance in the bonobo population.
If there’s one thing males in pretty much every species know, it’s not to mess with a group of angry women. Photo by Mark Dumont/Flickr.
In species that display what humans might call “stereotypically gendered behavior,” males are more often observed using aggressive tactics to coerce copulation and/or acquire higher social status (sound familiar?).
In the groups of bonobos Kyoto University studied, however, the female bonobos seemed to have discovered the perfect way to prevent that kind of male aggression through forming what researchers called “female coalitions” — or, as you or I might describe them, “deep female friendships.”
According to Tokuyama, 69% of the female coalitions were observed forming after or during an incident of aggressive male behavior.
Aggressive behavior could be anything from a male trying to mate with a female to a male bonobo feeding on a tree that a female bonobo has claimed as hers. It’s a broad definition of “aggressive” behavior, but that doesn’t seem to make a difference to the female coalitions. If one female in a coalition attacks a male, no matter the reason, the rest follow suit and come to her aid.
A coalition of female bonobos attacking an offending male. GIF via animal coalition/YouTube.
Meeting aggression with aggression might not seem like the best solution, but it’s actually worked to virtually eliminate violent outbreaks in the bonobo population.
“Males frequently direct display and charge toward females, but they seldom attack females physically, even though males are bigger,” Tokuyama told Upworthy.
Female coalitions rarely (if ever) lose to a male aggressor, and because the male bonobos know they can’t win, they’re less prone to acting out with aggression or violence in the first place.
This isn’t to say that bonobos of all genders are inherently violent either.
Another reason researchers think bonobo groups are less aggressive than their cousins is because of all the sex they’re having.
Bonobos are known to rub each others genitals as a form of greeting or when a new group comes to the area. While we humans might be inclined to label bonobos “kinky,” to them, sex is more like a friendly “how’re you doing?” than anything else.
Researchers have observed bonobos engaging in all kinds of sexual acts — not just heterosexual sex, but everything from same-sex sex to masturbation to oral sex and even group sex.
One result of both male and female bonobos getting so much pleasurable action — whether the bonobos are engaging in it to this end or not — is many fewer tense confrontations between individuals and groups. When every bonobo in the community is regularly engaging in a pleasurable sexual experience, the group has been shown to be calmer and less violent.
Contrast this to the observed behavior of chimpanzees, cousins to the bonobos: They have lots of sex but don’t often do it for pleasure alone. Chimpanzees have been documented engaging in rape, murder, and infanticide, and they are more likely to have violent interactions with newcomers.
The combination of female coalitions of bonobos defending their own and bonobos of all genders engaging in casual sex seems to have resulted in a less violent ape society.
To bring it back to the initial scenario of a strange man approaching a group of women at a bar — is there anything we as humans can learn from how the bonobos created a less violent society?
Obviously, the answer to male society aggression is not (I repeat not) that dudes need to get laid more. That’s an antiquated notion that results in a society where men are owed sex in exchange for peace, and when people feel entitled to sex, we all know bad things happen.
But there are three things we can learn from bonobos about creating a more peaceful, less violent human society:
1. If you’re a dude and you approach a woman at a bar and her friends close ranks around her, it’s because she’s not interested in you and they know it. Instead of getting frustrated by the rejection, take a deep breath and remind yourself that it’s her right to feel that way and that it’s in your best interest to find a partner who enthusiastically accepts your offer to buy her a drink.
2. The bonobos use sex, but in the case of humans, let’s take “sex” to mean “pleasure and fulfillment.” People who act out violently often do so because they’re angry at a person or frustrated with their lives or because they feel threatened. If we work to ensure that our human society has an abundance of opportunities for everyone to feel fulfilled and to feel pleasure on a regular basis, we may find ourselves living in a less violent, less aggressive society.
3. OK, fine — if we’re talking about what we as humans can learn specifically about sex from bonobos, anthropological data analyzed by neuropsychologist James Prescott suggests that societies that are more sexually open are also less likely to be violent. The key to understanding this correlation, however, is that it’s the society as a whole that is more sexually open and not just a small percentage of individuals.
A more sexually open society is less likely to assign value or social status to individuals based on their sexual activity or behavior. Therefore, people in that society are more likely to have casual sex for pleasure instead of to increase their social standing or value, which brings us back to number two on this list — when society is full of people who engage in pleasurable, fulfilling activities (sexual or otherwise) on the regular, the people in that society are more likely to be less violent overall.
So, no, bonobos behavior doesn’t exactly translate to modern human society as we know it for a number of reasons.
It is a reminder, however, to think about the importance of pleasure and fulfillment and what that means — not just for us as individuals but for human society writ large.
Of course, even in a sisterhood-embracing, life-fulfilled, and sex-positive society, there will always be some individuals who didn’t get the memo … in which case, ladies, you know what to do.