The Frontal Cortex

The Marketing of A Primate

Are bonobos really such peaceful beatniks? Is is true that they like to make love, not war? The truth is that nobody really knows. Ian Parker has a fascinating profile of the species, and our attempts to learn about the species, in the latest New Yorker:

This pop image of the bonobo–equal parts dolphin, Dalai Lama, and Warren Beatty–has flourished largely in the absence of the animal itself, which was recognized as a species less than a century ago. Two hundred or so bonobos are kept in captivity around the world; but, despite being one of just four species of great ape, along with orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees, the wild bonobo has received comparatively little scientific scrutiny. It is one of the oddities of the bonobo world–and a source of frustration to some–that Frans de Waal, of Emory University, the high-profile Dutch primatologist and writer, who is the most frequently quoted authority on the species, has never seen a wild bonobo.

In the end, our desire to discover a cuddly primate may overwhelm the biological facts. (Recent evidence from the field suggests that bonobos aren’t quite as compassionate as previously believed.) As one scientist tells Parker, “Scientific ideas exist in a marketplace, just as every other product does.”

Comments

  1. #1 Dr. X
    July 23, 2007

    Yes, I admit it… I was seduced by the marketing of this creature. Even though I’m highly usually highly skeptical about science reporting in the popular press, I ended up assuming that the reports of a non-aggressive ape were based upon extensive observation.

  2. #2 Laelaps
    July 24, 2007

    Thanks for posting this. Last night I picked up de Waal’s “Our Inner Ape,” which at times I feel should be called “I love Bonobos and You Should, Too.” While de Waal does note aggression among the apes, the peaceful and sexual behaviors are played up much more in order to make a dichotomy with chimpanzees.

  3. #3 Jim
    July 27, 2007

    Why would Bonobos be any different than any other animal on the planet, including us?

  4. #4 The Primate Diaries
    July 27, 2007

    I’ve spent a great deal of time watching bonobos during the last few years as part of my thesis research (in captivity, but in a very large enclosure at the San Diego Wild Animal Park). I have also read a large number of field studies comparing bonobos and chimpanzees. The difference between the two species is dramatic. Including the morphological differences in female genitalia that result in bonobos have sex face-to-face (which is never seen in chimpanzees). Furthermore, females will frequently use genital rubbing with other females to form partnerships in the wild. “Penis fencing” is also a popular pastime between males. While there is a tendency to “over sell” qualities in the popular literature to emphasize the differences, it doesn’t change the fact that these differences are quantifiable.

    For more information on this you can see my recent article in Wildlife Conservation magazine here.

  5. #5 The Primate Diaries
    July 27, 2007

    I’ve just posted an interview at The Primate Diaries with Frances White about bonobos. Dr. White is one of the leading bonobo field researchers in the world and is currently in DR Congo conducting a new bonobo study.

  6. #6 The Primate Diaries
    July 27, 2007

    I’ve just posted an interview at The Primate Diaries with Frances White about bonobos. Dr. White is one of the leading bonobo field researchers in the world and is currently in DR Congo conducting a new bonobo study.

  7. #7 Evangeline
    January 2, 2011

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