Men, Monkeys And Mayhem
By Daniel Pinchbeck
Sunday, November 17, 1996
Wars, genocides, rapes and riots are the unhappy legacy of human history, activities seemingly coded into human nature itself. Can anything interrupt this seemingly endless cycle of victims and victimizers? According to Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson, evolutionary biologists and the authors of Demonic Males, the answer to that question lies several million years in the past, when humans distinguished themselves from their nearest primate relatives, taking their tentative first steps out of the African jungle on the way to language, culture and the atomic bomb.
As Demonic Males reveals, human beings and chimpanzees are more than just country cousins. The DNA of humans is 99 percent identical to that of chimpanzees. We are, in fact, related more closely to chimpanzees than chimpanzees are to gorillas. According to the authors, chimpanzees and other ape species that seem to have changed little in 10 or even 15 million years can be viewed as "time machines," taking us back to the origins of behavior that we now consider uniquely human.
It was only 20 years ago when researchers learned that one aspect of this shared behavior is the proclivity of adult male chimps to attack, maim and kill other adult male chimpanzees whom they discover near their territory. Like gangsters during Prohibition or bounty hunters in the Wild West, male chimpanzees will organize raiding parties to seek out isolated members of other chimpanzee bands and then move in for the kill. In ways that eerily suggest human behavior, life for male chimpanzees is a continual jockeying for status and power. The "alpha male" of any group gets the lion's share of female attention as well as the grudging respect of his subordinates, who, like Brutus against Caesar, frequently plot for a way to turn the tables. Male chimpanzees also routinely batter females into submission, proving their sexual dominance through violent displays and occasional rapes.
This unpleasant legacy has left its mark on present-day humanity, where male demonism is still honored in the boxing ring as well as the corporate boardroom. Aggressive genetic strategies acquired over millions of years are slow to fade away. In the real world, the authors write, "the tough guy finds himself besieged with female admirers, while the self-effacing friend sadly clutches his glass of Chablis at the fern bar alone." Even the cheering of the masses at sports events or patriotic rallies can be connected to our primate inheritance, demonstrating the individual's biologically determined readiness to sacrifice or extend himself for the greater social good.
Such male aggression has structured the lives of humans as well as chimpanzees for thousands of generations. Every human society has been patriarchal, with men retaining most of the dominant spots in the hierarchy and using their power to control women and annihilate their enemies. The authors regretfully dismiss the possibility of some paradisiacal society that existed in a Golden Era or on a South Seas island, whether matriarchal or truly non-hierarchical and peaceful. Yet they do not believe that this means the future is a closed book. Evolution means continual adaptation and change, and the authors hold a rational faith that "to find a better world we must look not to a romanticized and dishonest dream forever receding into the primitive past, but to a future that rests on a proper understanding of ourselves."
However, it is in a vestige of that primitive past that the authors find what could be the key to a more harmonious human future. Living just across the Zaire River from their near relations, the chimpanzees, can be found the bonobo, a gentler, smarter and in every way better-mannered ape. According to the authors of Demonic Males, bonobos are the Barry Whites of the primate world, dedicating their lives to peace, love and, above all, sex. "Bonobos use sex for much more than making babies," the authors note. "They have sex as a way of making friends. They have sex to calm someone who is tense. They have sex as a way to reconcile after aggression." Like the members of some adventurous free love commune of the 1960s, bonobos have frequent homosexual sex and condone sex between adults and children. When a bonobo group meets a group of unknown bonobos, they generally mate and socialize with them rather than try to kill them.
Wrangham and Peterson theorize that slight changes in food sources and feeding patterns several million years ago allowed the bonobos to stay together in larger communities on their side of the river, unlike chimpanzees, who must break off into small parties to hunt for their favorite fruit and meat sources. In these larger and more stable groups, female bonobos were able to form permanent social bonds and resist the aggressive urges of the males. Female bonobos evolved to hide their ovulation patterns, which put them more in control of their biological destinies and made it less clear to males when mating would lead to offspring.
The authors of Demonic Males suggest that, as it was with the bonobos, the potential for future human harmony lies in the increasing power of the female, something they see developing in the advanced Western democracies. Their perspective is ultimately an optimistic, feminist and liberal one. It is, of course, equally possible to imagine scientists with a more Machiavellian outlook arguing that our genes were designed to remain selfish, our appetites voracious, and our tendencies violent, but over that pessimistic stance I would choose Wrangham and Peterson's outlook any day.
Daniel Pinchbeck is a founding editor of the literary journal Open City and a writer based in New York.
© 1996 The Washington Post Co.
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