Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

De Waal: Social Organization Among Various Primates

Our (historical) sociopolitical models of human personality, behavior, activities and community are often based on a stark comparative contrast between humans and animals. Even the most humane of animals is still a machine, still an animal sans moral. But this contemporary assumption about human superiority and uniqueness in comparison to animals, in particular primates, is flawed and incorrect. Anyone who reads and studies about animals will soon realize that the human exception isn’t so exception. In fact, many features of so-called uniquely human behavior and ways of doing things can be found chez les animaux.

As such, many of our political and sociological models of human behavior and activities benefit, I would claim, from a more honest and open comparative discussion with our closest genetic and behavioral neighbors. These sociopolitical models cannot simply ignore the growing research data and maintain blindly its cultural illusions and biases; these models must confront the impasse de l’animalité.

Frans B. M. de Waal has a great article I stumbled upon entitled Bonobo Sex and Society: The behavior of a close relative challenges assumptions about male supremacy in human evolution. As de Waal writes, “The bonobo’s behavioral peculiarities may help us understand the role of sex and may have serious implications for models of human society.”

Unlike chimpanzees who displayed a male-dominated, male-centered society characterized by violence and aggression, bonobos live in much more female-centered and female-lead community characterized less by aggressively than by peace-making and by (generally vegetarian) egalitarian bond-formation through sex. Instead of fighting, bonobos diffuse tense situation through various forms of sexual activities.* *

de Waal has a great chart at the end of his article summarizing the general differences between primates:

Social Organization among Various Primates

BONOBO

Bonobo communities are peace-loving and generally egalitarian. The strongest social bonds are those among females, although females also bond with males. The status of a male depends on the position of his mother, to whom he remains closely bonded for her entire life.

CHIMPANZEE

In chimpanzee groups the strongest bonds are established between the males in order to hunt and to protect their shared territory. The females live in overlapping home ranges within this territory but are not strongly bonded to other females or to any one male.

GIBBON

Gibbons establish monogamous, egalitarian relations, and one couple will maintain a territory to the exclusion of other pairs.

HUMAN

Human society is the most diverse among the primates. Males unite for cooperative ventures, whereas females also bond with those of their own sex. Monogamy, polygamy and polyandry are all in evidence.

GORILLA

The social organization of gorillas provides a clear example of polygamy. Usually a single male maintains a range for his family unit, which contains several females. The strongest bonds are those between the male and his females.

ORANGUTAN

Orangutans live solitary lives with little bonding in evidence. Male orangutans are intolerant of one another. In his prime, a single male establishes a large territory, within which live several females. Each female has her own, separate home range.