Bonobos Can Teach Us About Love and Sex
What can our close primate cousins teach us about sex?
Published on February 15, 2012 by Christopher Ryan in Sex
known for some time that bonobos (previously known as "pygmy
chimpanzees") are among the most sexual of all living
animals—besides of course, humans. Frans de Waal dubbed
them the "make love, not war" species, since they
seem to resolve the majority of conflicts through sexual activity.
So, it seemed only natural that I ask Dr. Ryan, preeminent
"sexpert," to give us some love advice through the
lens of these magnificent creatures. From them, we can learn
a thing or two--or seven.
further ado, here are seven things we can learn about love
from bonobos, as described by Dr. Christopher Ryan:
sex = less conflict. As the great primatologist, Frans de
Waal put it, "Chimps use violence to get sex, while bonobos
use sex to avoid violence." While chimps victimize each
other in many ways—rape, murder, infanticide, warfare
between groups—there's never been a single observed
case of any of these forms of aggression among bonobos, who
are much sexier than chimps. As James Prescott demonstrated
in a meta-analysis of all available anthropological data,
the connection between less restrictive sexuality and less
conflict generally holds true for human societies as well.
2. Feminism can be very sexy. When females are in charge,
everyone lives better (including the males). While male chimps
run the show, among bonobos, it's the females who are in charge,
with much better quality of life for everyone involved (see
is powerful. Although female bonobos are about 20% smaller
than males—roughly the same ratio as in chimps and humans—they
dominate males by sticking together. If a male gets out of
line and harasses a female, ALL the other females will gang
up on him. This sisterly solidarity, combined with lots of
sex, tends to keep the males behaving politely.
isn't romantic. While bonobos no-doubt experience unique feelings
for one another, they don't seem to worry much about controlling
one another's sex lives. Nor do bonobos seem to gossip much...
promise in promiscuity. All the casual sex among bonobos is
arguably a big part of what has made them among the smartest
of all primates. Until human beings came along and messed
things up for them, bonobos enjoyed very high quality of life,
low stress, and plenty of social interaction in hammocks.
In fact, of the many species of social primates living in
multi-male social groups, not a single species is sexually
monogamous. Each of the arguably smartest mammals--humans,
chimps, bonobos, and dolphins—is promiscuous.
sex needn't always include an orgasm, and "casual"
doesn't necessarily mean "empty" or "cheap."
Most bonobo sexual interactions are nothing more than a quick
feel, rub, or intromission—a "bonobo handshake,"
if you will. (See Vanessa Woods's excellent book by that name
for a personal story of living with bonobos while falling
in love.) But bonobos are very romantic: like humans, they
kiss, hold hands (and feet!), and gaze into one another's
eyes while having sex.
and food go together better than love and marriage—at
least for bonobos. Nothing gets a bonobo orgy started faster
than a feast. Give a group of bonobos a bunch of food and
they'll all have some quick sex before very politely sharing
the food. No need to fight over scraps like a bunch of uncouth
Ryan is one of the freshest voices in the modern scientific
movement to decode the mystery of human sexuality. His book,
Sex At Dawn, busts many of the myths surrounding human sexual
evolution, based upon contextual evidence from our hominid
ancestors as well as our living relatives, namely, the great
is a 1992 philosophical novel by Daniel Quinn. It examines
mythology, its effect on ethics, and how that relates to sustainability.
The novel uses a style of Socratic dialogue to deconstruct
the notion that humans are the pinnacle of biological evolution.
It posits that human supremacy is a cultural myth, and asserts
that modern civilization is enacting that myth with dangerous
consequences. It was awarded the $500,000 Turner Tomorrow
ultimately comprises a loose trilogy, including a 1996 spiritual
sequel, The Story of B, and a 1997 sidequel, My Ishmael. Quinn
also details how he arrived at the ideas behind Ishmael in
his autobiography, Providence: The Story of a Fifty-Year Vision
Quest. Yet another related book to Ishmael is Quinn's 1999
non-fiction work, Beyond Civilization.