Bonobos are celebrated as peace-loving, matriarchal, and sexually liberated. Are they?
Ian Parker in The New Yorker:
In recent years, the bonobo has found a strange niche in the popular imagination, based largely on its reputation for peacefulness and promiscuity. The Washington Post recently described the species as copulating “incessantly”; the Times claimed that the bonobo “stands out from the chest-thumping masses as an example of amicability, sensitivity and, well, humaneness”; a PBS wildlife film began with the words “Where chimpanzees fight and murder, bonobos are peacemakers. And, unlike chimps, it’s not the bonobo males but the females who have the power.” The Kinsey Institute claims on its Web site that “every bonobo—female, male, infant, high or low status—seeks and responds to kisses.” And, in Los Angeles, a sex adviser named Susan Block promotes what she calls “The Bonobo Way” on public-access television. (In brief: “Pleasure eases pain; good sex defuses tension; love lessens violence; you can’t very well fight a war while you’re having an orgasm.”) In newspaper columns and on the Internet, bonobos are routinely described as creatures that shun violence and live in egalitarian or female-dominated communities; more rarely, they are said to avoid meat. These behaviors are thought to be somehow linked to their unquenchable sexual appetites, often expressed in the missionary position. And because the bonobo is the “closest relative” of humans, its comportment is said to instruct us in the fundamentals of human nature. To underscore the bonobo’s status as a signpost species—a guide to human virtue, or at least modern dating—it is said to walk upright.