Monday, July 12, 2010

Of Chimps and Men

In an earlier post, Mass Murder, Mass Rape, the tendencies of humans to respond to the appearance of strangers of the same species, but different tribe/clan/culture with violence and often female rape were discussed. The notion was that this response must have some kind of evolutionary value. The ideas considered were that these responses could easily be associated with population and resource protection, and perhaps gene homogenization. After coming upon an article discussing aggression among chimpanzees, I thought this would be an opportunity to perhaps associate primitive origins of human behavior with that observed in chimpanzees.

The article described observations of small groups of chimpanzees who would go out and patrol the boundaries of the community’s territory. They would attack chimpanzees from an adjoining territory if they had a tactical advantage. Eighteen killings where observed in one particular location before the chimpanzee group took over that section of their neighbor’s territory. Of the eighteen killed, none were females. Adult males and children were killed, with the added twist that infants were occasionally eaten (another way to eliminate "the other?". So far, this appears like it could be one of those stories describing man’s nature as being inherited from his animal origins. But what happened to the females? Apparently they were left alone, presumably to return to their own community. The only description I could find of chimpanzee rape involved a male who insisted on mating with his sister—something taboo in chimp society. The sister repeatedly refused and was assaulted. Apparently, chimpanzee females readily make themselves available and the issue of force rarely comes up. Suddenly the thesis that man’s behavior can be explained as a residue from another species’ evolutionary roots becomes a little shaky. Further study indicates that nature is too complicated for such simple-minded analyses. While man is a product of his evolution, he is probably a unique product of a unique evolution.

Scientists tell us that Chimpanzees are our closest cousins, genetically, and that our human ancestors diverged from the chimpanzee line about six million years ago. The chimpanzees, themselves, bifurcated into two groups about one million years ago. These two groups were geographically separated and developed completely different social behaviors over the years. The most familiar chimpanzee (referred to as a common chimpanzee) is the most prevalent and does have many well-known human-like qualities. The study mentioned above related to this type of chimpanzee.

The other type of chimp is often referred to as a Bonobo. If we wish to consider humans as inheritors of the same characteristics inherited by current common chimpanzees, then we must also consider ourselves as relatives of the Bonobo chimp. Bonobos have a much more peaceful temperament than the common chimpanzee. They also have produced a society with a matriarchal tendency. The alpha male seems to have responsibility for executing tasks, but the alpha female can refuse to follow his orders and the rest of the community will follow her lead. In fact, the males seem to inherit their authority based on the rank of their mother. One researcher referred to the alpha male as the general— who could be trumped by the alpha female who was the queen. Perhaps the most unusual and interesting aspect of Bonobo society is the role of sex. Someone was quoted as saying that if two groups of Bonobos would meet unexpectedly, it was more likely that an orgy would breakout rather than warfare. The Bonobos, both male and female, are bisexual, very inventive, and very active. They occasionally experiment with the missionary position and practice oral sex. The offer of sexual activity is given in much the same way we might provide a guest with a cup of coffee.

It is easy to get drawn into the study of animal societies and to try to draw conclusions about human nature. The fact that these two lines of chimpanzees could develop so differently over the course of a million years leads me to conclude that humans could also go off in their own unique direction over a period of six million years. We are what we are, and we have no one to blame but ourselves.

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