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  • Writer's pictureDavid Williams

Bonobo.  Chimp.  Hominid.  Hominin.  Our living Bushman relations.  Who are we? by David Williams

What Human Nature consists of is never easy to ascertain, as we are a multi-dimensional species

with big brains, and we often defy categorization. As Issa, my favorite haiku writer from Japan (1763--1828) wrote: “Where there are humans/You'll find flies/And Buddhas.” Because it’s hard to pin us down, there are a good number of scholars who deny the existence of Human Nature at all. Steven Pinker even wrote a book about this phenomenon: The Denial of Human Nature. But like Pinker, I’m also not a skeptic. I am a believer in Human Nature. I do think there are dispositions, traits, we as a species hold in common, that result from our genes. There will be much more said on this at a later time, but now I want to veer into an interesting problem that is an offshoot of that one--this regarding how human societies operate, how they have changed, and why. For all social animals, status, hierarchy, competition, and even fairness, play a massive role. Natural Selection reveals the competitive race between species that is necessary for passing on one's genes, but it is within a species that the greatest competition takes place. Males will do everything they can to make sure their genetic legacy goes into the future by securing a mate, while females (with a similar urge to procreate) do the actual choosing through Sexual Selection; the girls pick the boys, and because the girls love a show the females drive the spectacular production of ornamentation in males, from huge antlers, horns, and hairdos in mammals to multi-colored displays in birds and fish and insects. In general, the more alpha the male, the more he stands out, and the greater will be his progeny, as females are looking for traits of fitness when they pick a male with whom to breed. Males are bigger than females in species where males dominate (sexual dimorphism), and much bigger in species where super dominant males control a harem of females (such as Gorillas and Baboons). Humans come in with about a 20% difference, below that of Chimps, and about the same as Bonobos.

Chimps do not have harems, but are promiscuous, with status and hierarchy having everything to do with who gets to mate more frequently, and who gets to mate first (a very important component). Alpha males put on displays to frighten others with their strength, to secure power, but they also form alliances with some males to booster their standing (for males with more friends have more offspring). It’s rather complex, but Chimpanzee societies can be brutal, and challenges for top banana can occur at any time. In addition, neighboring Chimps are seen as enemies, and it is common for a kind of “warfare” to break out between two troops who try to hold on to their territory or expand it. Yet, another type of Chimp, the Bonobo (lighter in weight and even more hominin looking) is very different in behavior. Bonobos do not have the same male dominated aggressive culture as do Regular Chimps. Females are in charge, and Bonobos solve conflicts through the initiation of sex between all members of their troop, which calms everybody down. Make Peace Not War. Females, being the alphas in Bonobo culture, keep dominant males in check. Bonobos are also the only other animal who can mate in the missionary position, which allows face to face contact, a more intimate connection with one’s sexual partner of the moment (as they like Regular Chimps are promiscuous). But most incredibly, Bonobos do not wage war with neighboring troops of Bonobos and have been seen to embrace others outside their own troop as friends.

The question is, are we more like Bonobos or more like Regular Chimps? We are related to both, sharing 98.7% of our genes with each group. In so many ways we certainly act like Regular Chimps, our continuous bloody battles, our insatiable drive for hierarchy and status, our utter brutality, our history of male dominance. But we also show aspects that are Bonobo, such as the ability to work together, to resolve conflicts peacefully, to set up networks of trade with other humans, to sometimes see other tribes as friends, for women to share in power. The Plains Indians, for example, were made up of people speaking very different languages, but they invented a sign language to communicate with one another and to induce trade, regardless of tribal affiliation; but on the other hand, many of these same tribes could be sworn enemies with one another with constant warfare being a large part of Plains tradition. So, there you have it.

We a strange mixture of both, but leaning more toward Regular Chimps, I’m afraid. Yet, this leads to a conundrum. How did homo sapiens go from living in probably a more Regular Chimp-like social organization to living for some 300, 000 or more years in what anthropologists call “egalitarian societies?” For contemporary primal cultures are based on food sharing, an equitable distribution of assets, and tribal members must work together for hunting and gathering, raising the kids, and making the items needed for survival. It’s not utopia, as tensions can rise between members, jealousies, etc., but overall, no one has more than anyone else, and contemporary primal societies, such as the Bushman, seem quite congenial, and only have to work a fraction of the time that we in modern technological societies do to survive. Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins has called the San Bushman the original “affluent society.”

San Bushman are also the human beings with the oldest DNA on earth for our species. (Yet ironically, Bushman face hostilities from the dominant culture and are highly endangered as a people). But do they provide a window into how our hunting and gathering ancestors might have lived? Do they exhibit social traits more reminiscent of Bonobo culture? Since all humans carry essentially the same genes, does this mean that "civilized man" could also have acted more humane, or Bonoboesque throughout our despicable history?

Around 10,000 years ago agriculture came onto the scene, and everything changed. Many humans became part of complex societies with monumental architecture (pyramids and temples) which are impressive, but the average quality of life for most people turned miserable—with castes, slavery, armies, police, forced labor, state level control, women often treated as chattel, the creation of money, with the majority of all wealth going to the 1%. Egalitarianism was gone. Wars and rumors of wars were waged over “stuff,” as huge battles of conquest were conducted across the Middle East, in China, in Europe, and in Meso-America. We have lived that way, more or less, ever since. The daily news is our testament to human greed and consumption, to our gluttony, our utter lack of fairness, even in the so-called Developed World, where we claim to be enlightened (though we do have two World Wars under our belt). And of course, now we are decimating the San Bushman in Africa, these most ancient people. A contemporary San woman, one of thousands relocated from the homeland to an internment camp in South Africa, Goitseone Lobelo says, “Life was easy, there were lots of fruits, animals and there were no bars and no beer. Now we are lost."

The line in our ancestry that runs from the more altruistic Bonobos could be a possibility for us. The egalitarianism of the tribal Bushman, whom from all the rest of us spring, could be a possibility for us as well. There is a thread here allowing for a less embattled existence for our species. But it's a very thin thread.


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