At some point in the distant past about two million years ago there was a single population of ancestral chimpanzees in Africa.
The population split into two groups, chimps and bonobos, separated by the Zaire River, and each group evolved totally different ‘rules’ for how a member behaves in their society. Chimpanzees developed a male dominated society where dominant males control individual groups. Aggression is common. Chimpanzees are known to carry out ‘war’ raids on neighboring groups of chimpanzees and will kill and eat members of rival groups. Dominant males will sometimes kill young members (infanticide) of their own group in order to breed with the now ‘childless’ mother.
For reasons not completely understood though there are some fairly sound hypotheses, bonobo behavior is nearly the polar opposite of their close relatives just north of the river. Bonobo aggression of any kind is exceedingly rare. Frequent and spontaneous sex is common between adult members of the group. Female bonobos bond together in a sort of ‘sisterhood’ and share the duties of raising their young. While chimpanzees use strength and aggression as a means of creating a hierarchy of control, bonobos use sex to ease tension and create a more secure and close connection within the group.
We might reflexively conclude that surely a peaceful resolution of conflicts is always preferable to aggression, especially aggression that kills millions of one’s own species, as in the case of human wars and genocide, brought about by territorial conflicts and ideological and religious differences. But nature does not care about human opinions and sentimentalities. A species is successful if it maintains its presence on the earth and does not go extinct. The means by which it maintains its presence is irrelevant. So females of some animal species eat their male companions after mating, a rather drastic turn of events as far as we’re concerned, but that action gives the female a better chance of survival to bring forth more of their kind. In the case of bonobos and chimpanzees, the chimps have to deal with a more competitive environment from other animals in their area and aggression serves them better than passive behavior.
In comparison, bonobos live in an almost paradise with few natural enemies (human hunters do kill bonobos and chimpanzees for ‘bush meat’) and much less competition for the foods they eat. One might say they have the ‘luxury’ of a far less hostile environment and so aggression and strength are of less importance than mutual aid, support, and comfort. It is also likely that of the two groups the bonobo population represents the latest adaptive behaviors and the chimpanzees have retained more of the ancestral behaviors. The bonobos are likely the latest ‘natural experiment’ in non-human primate societies. One might wonder that if in the future the entire region experiences some catastrophic environmental change where the Zaire River no longer serves as a barrier, which ‘civilization’ of these two groups of primates would survive. The bonobo’s peaceful behavior may be the wave of the future or it may be snuffed out by a more aggressive species and the unpredictably of future events.
A life-long resident of northern Minnesota, Terry Mejdrich is a former math teacher and farmer turned mystery author and freelance writer.