One thing that really pisses me off is the stereotypes we have about the other great apes.
It’s not that we have completely messed up notions about the other members of our family tree that bothers me–science is based on observation of what data you can get, and primates are tough nuts to crack. I don’t mind us being wrong occasionally, or frequently, or even constantly. We’re gonna be wrong a lot. It’s a sloppy science based on endless fieldwork under adverse conditions, and I sure as hell couldn’t do it, so I’m not blaming the scientists for being wrong.
What infuriates me is people using great ape data to support whatever they want to argue about humans.
And again, I can’t say it’s the fault of the scientists, although they’re as guilty as anybody. We’re all products of our times, and sometimes we see what we want to see. For example, back in the day–and by the day, I mean the fifties and sixties–there was an almost phobic reaction to observations of infanticide among primates. A couple of scientists who reported routine infanticide among species of baboons were practically blacklisted from the profession–there was a gut-level reaction that such behavior was deviant and couldn’t be natural that had nothing to do with science and a lot to do with cultural mores. ("Mother Nature," by Hrdy, has some great discussion of this, although it’s also a product of it’s time and less than complete primate studies.)
Hell, it’s not just the apes–I still remember when the Anasazi were peaceful and non-warlike and totally groovy and in touch with nature, man, and never mind that nobody lives in a goddamn cliffside fortress only accessible by climbing up painstaking stone handholds or crawling through tiny narrow crawlspaces unless you have a bloody good reason.
But it was the sixties, and y’know.
My point is that there is this tendency of people to use great ape behavior to justify their particular axe to grind, and it drives me up the barking wall, because I feel like we should know better by now.
The funny thing is that it’s usually not stuff that needs justifying. Just once I’d like to see somebody seriously try to justify domestic violence based on the fact that all species of great ape beat t’ ever-lovin’ shit out of each other–it would be reprehensible, but at least it’d be novel, and they’d actually have something of a leg to stand on, since there’s no species of great ape where the males don’t beat up on the females occasionally. I wish that weren’t true, but the world is not arranged according to my wishes, and the sooner we realize that sometimes we have to transcend our genetic tendencies in order to be decent people, the better off we’ll be.
But it’s never something like that. It’s always something that doesn’t particularly need to be justified, and it makes me bonkers.
The one that really irks me on this front are the people trying to justify their polyamory.
Now the thing is, I couldn’t care less if people are poly. If it makes you happy, it is so not any of my business that I cannot adequately express how none of my business it is. There is less than no need to justify your lifestyle, to me or anybody else. It’s your life. I have other fish to fry. Me, I’m into monogamy, but again, that’s my particular lifestyle, and I feel no need to justify it.
And then somebody brings the primates up, and those years when I really did want to be an anthropologist sit in the back of my brain and starting kicking the seat in front of them, and I’m forced to make grumpy rants on the internet.
Tangentially, I am also tired of people trying to claim that we should be vegetarians because it’s unnatural, and part of their evidence being that the other great apes are vegetarians. They aren’t, except possibly the gorillas. The jury is out on the gorillas. The above-linked article would cast a little doubt, except that they’re in captivity, and animals in captivity frequently act weird.
(I am not dissing on zoos here. I am actually all for good zoos, specifically because of stuff like this. There are bad zoos, the history of zoos is often ugly, but by god, these days, those people are trying like hell to save the world in the only way they can, and sometimes they even pull off a major victory, which is a lot more than I can say about most people, myself included. )
I don’t know how widespread this is as an argument for vegetarianism–I’ve hit it a few times, but I try to stay out of this sort of thing because of how little I give a rat’s ass about what anybody else eats, as long as it’s not endangered or talking. And indeed, the vast majority of human herbivores I’ve met are perfectly normal people who do not feel the need to preach at others about their diet, themselves having bigger okra in life to fry, and this is as it should be. (The division here is not actually between vegetarians and carnivores, I think, it’s between "people who feel the need to justify their lifestyle as superior to others" and "people who have hobbies." )
There are frankly lots of good arguments to be made in terms of health and ecological impact to be made for vegetarianism, all of which have been made many times by the people who care to argue, but the "not meant to eat meat" thing isn’t one of them, even leaving aside that "meant" implies a sentience and driving force to evolution that we have no conclusive proof. (I’ll go so far as to say that we should probably all eat a lot LESS meat, but understand that I say that while picking the remnants of a cheeseburger out of my teeth.) My favorite word on the subject came from a !Kung tribesman, one of the hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari, who could easily derive their entire diet from gathering. An anthropologist asked him why go to such much trouble hunting, which was dangerous and tiring and frequently unsuccessful, when they didn’t need the food. He shrugged and said–and I suspect we all know the exact tone–"Women like meat."
Preach it, brother.
Anyway, enough of that. It turns out that, given access to more data, we were wrong about some of the species, and all the other great apes except the gorilla hunt and eat other animals in the wild, including the poor overanalyzed bonobos. Given the above article, I’ll give you 50/50 odds on the gorilla being an occasional omnivore,* because of all of them, we have the least data on the species. But we cannot state, based on their behavior in captivity, that they are DEFINITELY omnivores, because–once again–animals in captivity act weird.
Which brings us to the bonobos.
God, the poor bonobos.
Let me say again, this is not about polyamory, it’s about my annoyance with people using primate behavior to justify their own axes to grind. You want to have an open relationship? I cannot tell you how little I care. Knock yourself out. It’s not my thing, but it’s not my place to approve or disapprove. It’s not my place to even have an opinion. It’s your life, and as long as you’re not screwing somebody over (in the bad way), I should stay the heck out’ve it.** I ‘ve known a few happy poly people, and a lot of miserable ones, which ironically breaks down to about the same numbers as monogamous people I’ve known, so it’s pretty much a wash.
Until you mention bonobos.
Then I get to go all crazy primatology on your ass.
There was a trend for awhile–and it might still be going on, or it might have tapered off, I don’t know–among the more evangelical of the poly crowd to attempt to justify their behavior to whatever audience they felt the need to justify themselves to using the bonobo, or pygmy chimp (which isn’t that much smaller than a normal chimp, but hey, magnolia warblers aren’t particularly attracted to magnolia trees either.)
The theory goes that the bonobos screw each other constantly, as their…mmm…social metaphor, for lack of a better term…and they are also happy and peaceful and as close to matriarchal as chimps get and they don’t fight and also they’re vegetarians. So if humans were more like them and were all having sex socially and didn’t have all these jealousy issues, we would also be happy and peaceful and copies of Stranger in a Strange Land would replace Gideon’s Bible in hotel rooms and small children would join hands and sing and there would be free unicorns with every purchase at Wal-Mart.
Now, I can’t speak to what would happen to human society in this theoretical utopia, but the bit about the bonobos is a load. Unfortunately, it was a load that got shoehorned into the popular imagination, and it keeps coming up at random and occasionally making me crazy.
Here’s the thing. The data does indeed say some of that, but the data is not reliable. For many years, almost all the data acquired about bonobo behavior was acquired from captive populations, which in some cases had few or no adult males, and while the scientists did very good jobs with what they had to work with, what they had to work with was skewed.
Animals in captivity act weird.
It’s easy to be matriarchal when there are no adult men around. Many, many species exhibit promiscuity in captivity, out of sheer boredom–they’ve caught some monkeys masturbating a hundred times a day–and it turns out that the bonobos in the wild maybe aren’t doin’ the nasty nearly as often–there’s not nearly as much observation of it, and in fact, some scientists argue that regular chimps actually have just as much if not more sex–and also they hunt and eat meat and also they’re sometimes violent. (They do seem to engage in more homosexual contact than regular chimps, but again primarily in captivity–they may also being doing it in the wild but we just don’t KNOW.) They seem to engage in less lethal violence than chimps, but again, we just don’t know. Nobody’s seen enough of them in the wild to tell.
There isn’t enough data.
Hell, at the end of the day, we should maybe just accept that great apes are bastards. Orantuangs rape each other, chimps kill each other and even engage in occasional cannibalism, gorillas beat the tar out of their harems if they try to leave, most of them commit infanticide fairly routinely, and bonobos are probably not little shaggy hippies after all.
And y’know, that’s life. They’re apes. They are not short dim humans or noble savages or anything else. They’re apes. They are very good at being apes. They are not good at being us. We shouldn’t expect it of them. Hell, we’ve been being us for thousands of years, and sometimes we’re not terribly good at it either.
We really shouldn’t be looking to the great apes for idealized behavior OR justifications of our own behavior–we’re all apes together, but we humans are ethical apes, and no matter how much I may despair of the behavior of humankind occasionally, I have it so much better than a chimp OR gorilla female that there are no words.
Hell, I have it so good that I can expect to have it this good as my inalienable right, and get royally pissed when I don’t. That’s pretty impressive, right there.
Do what you want to do. Follow your bliss, as Joseph Campbell would say. But for the love of all that is primate, leave the bonobos out of it until we get better information, and if you really feel the need to justify your lifestyle based on the behavior of a great ape, you maybe need to stop and think about why you’re doing what you’re doing. Gibbons are monogamous, but I can’t say I spend much time dwelling on the fact.
Thank you. That is all.
*There’s actually a lot of herbivores that occasionally eat meat. The deer biting the heads off sea-bird chicks to get their calcium still freaks me out. It’s possible that gorillas even routinely hunt, as do other primates–the fact is, we just don’t kNOW.
**Honesty obligates me to say that I do roll my eyes a bit at all the poly-drama, possibly because there seems to be so MUCH of it, but I strongly suspect it’s like art drama, and anybody tangentially associated with the online art world would get a skewed view of how much time most of us spend screaming at each other about our characters being copied. As always, the loud crazy ones get all the press.