Our Bonobo Forebears Tell Us Why We Want To Have So Much Sex

bonobos2Much has been written in the last few years about bonobos, the branch of the chimpanzee family that remained in the African rainforest when chimps expanded to less abundant areas and which, to cope with that scarcity, evolved the more aggressive, male-dominated societies we now commonly associate with chimps. Although they are facing extinction due to habitat encroachment and hunting, the bonobos retain the temperament and social behaviours that have always suited the Eden-like tropical African wilderness:

  • They are peaceful, fun-loving, egalitarian and sensitive
  • They live in a matriarchal society, where male aggressiveness is not tolerated by the ruling female ‘sisterhood’
  • They make limited use of tools, probably because they don’t have to use them
  • They are almost entirely vegetarian
  • They have an active social life in their substantial leisure time
  • They live in large, stable, closed communities of about 100, but social and sexual behaviour within each community is very loose and casual

Bonobo females first give birth at around age 14, and thereafter carry and nurse their young for about five years, rarely becoming pregnant again until the baby is self-sufficient at age 6 (very much as humans did, until the invention of agriculture freed mothers from the need to carry young offspring everywhere with them). Bonobos’ average lifespan is unknown though it is estimated to be 40-60 years. They use hand, voice and facial gestures extensively for communication, though their voice is a higher-pitched ‘barking’ sound than that of the low “ooh, ooh” sound of the common chimp. Their forest environment has caused them to evolve a unique primate feature — opposable ‘thumbs’ on their feet, which allow them to use all four limbs to pick up things. Their DNA, like that of the common chimp, is at least 95% the same as ours.

What differentiates bonobos most from other primates (other than ourselves) is the frequency of their sexual activity. Most bonobos engage in a wide variety of sexual activity (including every variant engaged in by humans), often several times a day. Sexual activity is quite casual, engaged with with almost any other member of the community without commotion, and with each sexual act lasting a very short time. Females are sexually attractive and active throughout the month and year, and initiate most sexual activity, both with males and, primarily using genital-to-genital rubbing, with other females. Face-to-face sex is common, again a behaviour they share uniquely with human primates.

The obvious question is, why? Research to date, which is currently very active since the opportunity to study bonobos in the wild is quickly disappearing, suggests that there are several reasons, including the use of casual sex as a means to curry favour and extract food from other community members, but most notably as a means to reduce and avoid conflict and to make up after conflict. Sex usually occurs before feeding, where the pleasurable, relaxed feeling it presumably brings encourages more sharing of food in the afterglow. It usually occurs as well before play, and hence presumably leads to less aggressiveness and more cooperation and learning during play. And it usually occurs after (rare) conflicts, apparently to reconcile the community members and ease bad feelings between the disputing parties.

When you think of it, it’s kind of obvious, in a society that lives in abundance. In the societies of relative scarcity that common chimps live in, however, a lot of sex before feeding would exhaust the hunters and allow the prey time to escape — not a good idea. But in bonobo society it makes perfect sense.

What does this suggest about why humans, the other constantly horny primate, have so much sex for reasons largely unrelated to procreation? Could it be that we, too, are so frequently aroused in order to reduce and avoid conflict and to make up after conflict? Most of us now live in densely packed cities where poverty and scarcity are endemic, and primatologists have said that if the aggressive, male-dominated common chimps tried to live in such conditions the result would be constant warfare and bloodshed that would make their social order break down completely. So it would make sense that crowding, and stress, might cause the human body to secrete more pheromones and other sexual hormones to persuade us we should be lovers, not fighters — in other words to behave more like our bonobo cousins than our common chimp cousins. How many of us will admit to having had great sex as a reconciliation after a really knock-down, drag-out fight with our partners? Is it just a coincidence that going out for dinner is the primary seduction mechanism in human urban society, that the food-sex connection is so strong?

The problem occurs when this natural inclination to ‘make love not war’, to be casually polyamory creatures within our communities, comes into conflict with (a) the breakdown of the barriers between tribes and communities, so that there are simply too many people to have sex with without life becoming extremely complicated, and (b) the religious and political taboos against non-monogamous sex.

Why shouldn’t the church and state support us having wild sex with everyone in our communities, behaving like a bunch of bonobos? After all, they want us to be placid and obedient, and it’s pretty hard to get angry and plot revolutions with the blissful rush of endorphins running through your bloodstream all the time. However, the church and state want you to be locked and isolated in your nuclear family, not comparing notes with others in your community and loving them more than God and Nation. Their control over us is threatened by the liberation that a polyamory lifestyle and a community deeply bonded by love could bring about, so both church and state have strict laws trying to prevent it. And since business (in its quest for specialization), immigration and the automobile have all pretty well broken down the tribal barriers between communities, it would now be very difficult to reestablish largely closed, intimate communities to allow this to happen anyway.

So instead of easing the stress of close proximity and scarcity, as nature intended, our rampant sexual desires paradoxically increase our tension and conflict. Modern human society tolerates sex only between consenting monogamous partners, converting a polyamory abundance of sexual freedom and relaxation into yet another civilizational scarcity. Like all scarcities, that leads to hoarding (leading in turn to sexual jealousy and psychopathic over-protectiveness), covetousness and violence (leading to sexual coercion, abuse, cruel manipulation and even murder), and a black market in the artificially scarce commodity of sex (leading to prostitution and sexual exploitation).

All, perhaps, an ironic, tragic and unpredictable consequence of nature’s giving us an appetite that worked so well for so long for our close siblings, the now soon-to-be-extinct bonobos.

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5 Responses to Our Bonobo Forebears Tell Us Why We Want To Have So Much Sex

  1. Carroll says:

    Really interesting article, Dave. Your breadth of interests, and resources, continues to amaze me!

  2. Meg says:

    Ha! The title alone…

  3. Hehe, the bonobos were the first real peace&love warriors! Bonobos are hedonist masters… We’re just fake imitators. :)

  4. Pearl says:

    Interesting. Moralizing sex makes it a controlled comodity, therefore scarce, therefore increasing vices. Are polyamorous sub-societies less prone to abuse? It seems like an attractive argument. The overarching dominant culture may ruin the utopia the bonobos have without a tipping point in human culture towards free love. Perhaps we could try physical contact first. Would high touch cultures be more calm and less prone to war or would their boundaries be constantly broached by the cultural norms, increasing stress and interpersonal tension?

  5. darcy says:

    There is a podcast available of great interview with Franz de Waal on WNYC (NYC) at http://wnyc.org/shows/lopate/episodes/12292005And this blog is amazing, I cannot figure out how you are able to be so prolific!

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