This Myth About Chimps Helps Justify Patriarchy and War

Written by Ilana Strauss

Are chimps really humanity’s single closest cousins?

I recently saw a video that claimed chimpanzees are humanity’s closest cousins. You hear this a lot in articles and videos — that chimpanzees are the closest animals to humans. It’s not true.

Chimpanzees may be closely related to humans, but they’re tied for first. Bonobos, another ape, are just as close. Humans split off from this evolutionary trail before chimpanzees and bonobos divided into two species. And yet, people often forget about bonobos.

“Until now the strategy of many anthropologists has been to marginalise the bonobo,” said Frans de Waal, a Dutch primatologist.

It’s no mere technicality. Humans look to their animal cousins for clues about themselves. And when they watch chimps, they see violence, strict hierarchies and male-domination.

Males run chimp society. They form strict hierarchies where the males jealously guard “their” females and frequently fight each other and other groups of chimps. Some use chimps to justify sexism and hierarchy in human behavior. After all, if our closest cousins are hierarchical, patriarchal and war hungry, maybe our own sexist and violent behavior is just in our nature.

“Male chimpanzees can be really horrible to females,” said Ian Gilby, an Arizona State University primatologist. “It is possible that in our early ancestors there may have been an adaptive value to male aggression against females.”

But bonobos are different. Bonobo society is female dominated. These apes also have a hippie, queer, free-love lifestyle. And they’re just as closely related to humans as chimps.

“Chimpanzees can be very empathetic, loving but they also have this darker side. They have war, they kill each other, they beat their females. Bonobos don’t really have any of that,” said Vanessa Woods, a researcher at Duke University. “They’re different because they’ve managed to live in a society virtually without violence. How do they do that? Humans, for all of our intelligence and all our technology, we haven’t managed to live without war, and so I think that’s something very important that bonobos can teach us.”

The same kind of thinking that says humans are like chimps urges people to compete with each other until there’s nothing left. It’s the thinking that says countries should engage in trade wars rather than teaming up to overcome environmental problems. It’s the thinking that says men should control the political realm and that humans must sacrifice the Earth to remain the most powerful, dominant species.

When people leave bonobos out of the story, they (unintentionally, I’m sure) spread a false worldview in which this competitive, violent world is the natural order. Domination — over women, over other species — is the way of the world. But as bonobos show us, there are a lot of natural orders. Violence, peace, patriarchy, matriarchy, competitive, cooperation … the natural world is full of opposites. It’s up to us to decide what kind of society we’d like to live in; chimps are no excuse.

This post originally appeared on TreeHugger.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

49 comments

Chad Anderson
Chad Anderson23 days ago

Thank you.

SEND
Loredana V
Loredana V24 days ago

You can't compare their society to ours. We are supposed to have another brain and another way to organise our actions.Bonobos are more intelligent, though.

SEND
Leslie F
Leslie F24 days ago

IIRC, Bonobos are also more successful in evolutionary terms than Troglodyte chimpanzees (technically, both species are chimpanzees; the species we usually call chimps are the Troglodytes). They have more offspring, which tend to live longer, and tend to extend their populations over more territory.

SEND
Ruth S
Ruth S24 days ago

Thanks.

SEND
Ruth S
Ruth S24 days ago

Thanks.

SEND
danii p
danii p25 days ago

Thank you

SEND
danii p
danii p25 days ago

Thank you

SEND
danii p
danii p25 days ago

Thank you

SEND
Gino C
Past Member 25 days ago

thanks

SEND
Angeles Madrazo
Angeles Madrazo25 days ago

Interesting! Thank you

SEND