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."


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Bonobos often adopt a "missionary" posture during copulation (photograph by Frans de Waal). As part of the series of reposts leading up to my review of Frans de Waal's newest book The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society I present the second of three pieces that appeared after Ian…
As part of the series of reposts leading up to my review of Frans de Waal's newest book The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society I present the first of three pieces that appeared after Ian Parker's 2007 article "Swingers" appeared in The New Yorker. As expected, the apologists for…
Check out a long piece on bonobos in The New Yorker. Now, I've read a fair amount of Frans de Waal's work, and I think the piece is making him out to be a little more PC than he is. Nevertheless, I am a bit disturbed by the fact that hasn't seen a Bonobo in the wild! I just happened to have…
We've had reason now and again to mention the unusual ape photographed at Yaounde Zoo (in Cameroon) a few times. I finally got round to digging out and scanning the only photo of the animal I've seen: it was taken by Peter Jenkins and Liza Gadsby and first appeared in the November 1996 issue of the…

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.

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.

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

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.

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