How Sex, Politics, Money and Religion are Killing Planet Earth

Friday, September 10, 2010

Apes and Men

People are apes. Although the monotheistic religions of the world like to place Homo sapiens in a unique and godlike classification of his own, evolutionary genetics paints a roadmap to our ancestors swinging from the trees. In fact, we can learn a lot about our behavior from studying our closest cousins – chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos.

In the book Demonic Males, Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson outline an impressive genetic and cultural history of the world’s extant apes in an effort to determine a possible link between man’s aggressive nature and his genetic evolution. The discussion is thought provoking.

For decades, anthropologists lumped our primate cousins on one branch of the evolutionary tree and humans on another, assuming at some time in the distant past, we shared a common ancestor, but that people essentially evolved along a distinctly human branch. Modern advancements in genetic testing technologies put this delusion to rest. While Homo sapiens did indeed diverge from orangutans and gorillas about 13 and 10 million years ago, respectively, it wasn’t until about 5 million years ago that we diverged from our common ancestor with chimpanzees and bonobos. The startling revelation from these findings is that chimpanzees and bonobos are more closely related to humans than they are to gorillas and orangutans. In fact, humans evolved from a distinctively chimpanzee-like relative.  To see where we came from, we need to look at them.

And they are like us in ways other than those that immediately meet the eye. It turns out humans, bonobos and chimps have more in common than opposable thumbs. Out of all the trillions of organisms that inhabit the globe, humans and chimpanzees are the only known species that will raid and murder their own species without provocation or in the interest of self preservation. Humans and Chimps are the only known animals who actively engage in warfare.

At a basic level, human and chimpanzee warfare is strikingly similar. Both species never initiate attack unless they are convinced their numbers and probability for success are ensured. In both species, it is commonly only the males that initiates and engages in battle. For both species raping, abusing and kidnapping of rival and related females is a common practice. Both species arrange their societies by patriarchal hierarchies.

Our similarities with cousin booboo are markedly different than those we share with chimpanzees. Human and bonobo females are the only known mammals that do not display obvious visible signs of ovulation. Bonobos also enjoy face to face sex with orgasm and a variety of sexual partners, including members of their own sex. But bonobos are peaceful and do not kill each other as we do. Violence of any kind against females is virtually unknown, and bonobo females appear to have the societal upper hand.

What accounts for these remarkable differences? Behavioral scientists believe that relatively peaceful bonobo societies are directly related to feminine authority and autonomy. Female bonobos form a united front, and alliances among all the female members of a group further reinforce feminine authority. Males gain position based on their mothers’ status, and the threat of maternal rejection is enough to keep most of the male members of the tribe in line. Males who lose their mothers never advance in bonobo society.

Humans share so much in common sexually and genetically with bonobos, one wonders why our cultures have evolved so differently. The answer lies in feminine cooperation. Human females, while often forming intense and permanent bonds with one another, find it hard to cooperate as a group. The back-stabbing, cat fighting, nastiness often attributed to high school “mean girls,” is unfortunately endemic to broad range of the human feminine gender.

Rather than working together to achieve the common shared goals of equality, reproductive freedom and creating a better planet for our offspring, women form divisive groups that reinforce the opposite. Some misguided women, like handmaiden Sarah Palin, even jump on the bandwagon of patriarchy and join in the voices that seek to strip women of their hard won freedoms, particularly reproductive knowledge and freedom.

The side by side analysis of humans and their closest primate kin provides fodder for thoughtful discourse. Clearly, humans have the inherent capacity for a variety of cultural behaviors. We can choose to succumb to our baser instincts and continue on the destructive path of violence, or we can form alliances to promote peace and cooperation. If the women of the world unite, who knows what we can accomplish?

Anybody interested in reading more on this subject should read Demonic Males. The link appears below:


  1. It is very interesting to follow your blog as my husband and me had almost the same conversation yesterday. We talked about the evolution and genetic similarities between people and another species (not just chimpanzees). And he said it would be interesting to see the result of human and chimpanzee hybridization. He told me about such experiments in the US that were banned. I understand reasons why it happend and I agree with this ban. But I'm interested would you like to support such research?

  2. Hi Sasha. The book "Demonic Males" above is a very interesting comparison of the similarities and difference between humans and our closest genetic relatives.

    I actually don't support research that involves any animal cruelty, particularly in instances as you mentioned like making genetic mutations simply to satisfy our own curiosity. I believe in natural selection and have a problem with people genetically engineering organsims that would not have evolved naturally. That's just my opinion. I am sure there are some out there who would have other ideas. Thank you as always for your perspective.