With some help from bonobos, Heather Norum challenges the argument that male primates are violent by nature.
Men are violent. The media, society, school, and even my parents have all taught me this, so it must be right. They wouldn’t lie to me, and they couldn’t be wrong. Right? I mean, just look at all the apparent proof of it. Most convicted serial killers are men. Most convicted rapists are men. Domestic abuse? More men than women are convicted of that too.
I know a woman who works at a domestic abuse crisis center and without even realizing it she will talk about the victims as women and the abusers as men. She’ll be careful to use the term ‘abuser’ instead of ‘husband’ or ‘boyfriend,’ but somehow that abuser always ends up being a ‘he.’ She has been so socialized into thinking that men are violent, that without realizing it she has associated ‘abuser’ with ‘male.’ It doesn’t matter that the statistics used to show that more women are raped than men are flawed. She cannot see past her own belief that men are violent.
Perhaps the most damning apparent evidence that men are violent is that it’s genetic. It’s the nail in the coffin: in primates, males are violent. It’s biological; it’s evolution. They can’t help it and we should fear them for it. Well I’m here to call bull-pucky on all of that, but especially the biological explanation. Not all species of primates have violent males, and I can prove it by introducing you to the bonobo.
Bonobos are a species of primate that live south of the Congo River. They are very closely related to the common chimpanzee, which live north of the river. The creation of the Congo River around 2 million years ago is probably what caused the separation of the bonobos from chimpanzees. The genus Pan (which chimps and bonobos are part of) split from the common ancestor it shares with the other great apes (and humans), and then split again into the common chimp, and the bonobo. While it is well known that the common chimp is our closest living relative; that title also applies to bonobos. I’ve provided a very simplistic illustration to help explain this relationship. I fully realize it is not a comprehensive depiction of the evolution of chimps, bonobos, or humans, but I hope it serves to help make it clearer.
My point in explaining how closely related we are to bonobos is to emphasize that in any discussion of how the great apes and humans are similar, we must include bonobos. If we assume that we can draw conclusions about human behaviour by observing the behaviour of the great apes, then that would apply to bonobos as much as it does to the common chimpanzee. In other words, if you’re going to argue men are violent because chimps males are violent, you have to take a look at bonobo males too.
Often when bonobos are discussed, they are used as an example of primates who are matriarchal, engage in homosexuality, and have females who engage in sex even when not fertile. The idea being that if bonobos do it, we can too! I would like to focus on bonobo males’ lack of aggression when compared to the common chimpanzee. To do that, I will discuss the nature of male aggression and violence in the common chimpanzee as a basis for comparison. So, on to the monkeys!
The common chimpanzee is known for living in very tight-knit groups who are very aggressive to outsiders. Groups of male chimpanzees will patrol their territory, attacking any outsiders who get too close. In fact, patrol parties from large communities have been recorded attacking, and conquering neighbouring small communities. They do this to gain greater access to food and females. Violence and aggression isn’t only directed toward outsiders. Even within a community male chimpanzees can be violent. Males kill unrelated infants in order cause females to become fertile again, allowing them to mate more often. Similarly, dominance struggles occur on a regular basis, in order to gain access to females. There’s no doubt about it; male chimpanzees are violent.
So then, how do bonobos compare? Well for starters, males tend to be much more tolerant of infants. I am unaware of any record of males committing infanticide. If it happens, it isn’t common enough for researchers to have seen it and recorded it. When it comes to dealing with outsiders, bonobo males also appear to be less violent. There is no evidence that either male or female bonobos patrol their territory. What’s more, when individuals from different groups meet, they may groom each other and engage in sexual contact as a way to prevent conflict. This also isn’t to say that violence toward outsiders doesn’t ever occur. It just hasn’t been observed.
Within a community, bonobo males are far less aggressive than the common chimp. Bonobos, like chimpanzees, have a fission-fusion society. That means that members of a community will sleep and perform other social activities in large groups, sometimes upwards of 100 individuals, but will forage for food in smaller groups during part of the day. In chimpanzees, when the smaller groups come together at the end of the day the males reassert their place in the hierarchy by aggressive dominance displays. In bonobos, however, no such dominance displays occur. When the smaller groups of bonobos come together at the end of the day, they engage in sexual contact and grooming as a way to re-establish social bonds and avoid conflict. When conflicts do occur, both within a community and with outsiders, often they are solved without violence. Compared to the common chimpanzee, bonobos males are almost docile.
So, you may ask, what is the point to all this? We tend to lump all primates together when discussing how their behaviour can be used to explain human behaviour. We claim to be asking the question, ‘Are men violent?’ and then turn to the great apes, as a collective whole, for an answer. Except that’s disingenuous. What we actually do is assume men are violent, and then pick certain great apes to use as proof. We end up ignoring the evidence that shows that not all great ape males are violent, and more importantly, human men aren’t inherently violent either.
Two million years and a river separate bonobos from chimpanzees, and it resulted in completely different levels of male aggression. Imagine what the six million years and the world that separates humans from either of them could mean for supposedly biologically determined male aggression in humans. I think it means that using chimps as a biological basis for human behaviour is too simple. Humans are complex beings full of all sorts of emotions. Some days I think we may be more like chimps, with our wars and our violent crime. And some days I feel like we might be more like bonobos, solving conflicts by peaceful means.
More important than all of that, though, is what this means for the myth of male violence. We tell ourselves that men are violent and that we have all sorts of statistics and biological proof of that. Even though I know it is all false, I still hesitate for a moment when I see a strange man walking toward me on an empty street. For a moment it doesn’t matter that I know that men aren’t inherently violent; I’m worried that I might be wrong. It breeds fear, and fear so easily turns to hate. And if one half of the population fears and hates the other half, we won’t make any progress at all.
Author’s Note: In the interest of full disclosure I will admit that I am not an evolutionary biologist or a biological anthropologist. If you are interested in further reading I’d suggest the Wikipedia articles on bonobos and the common chimp (they’re well cited) and the book Primates in Perspective.
photo: irene2005 / flickr