Why Bonobos Will Save the World

By Chris Mooney | May 27, 2010 9:21 am

Vanessa Woods CoverThis is a guest post from Vanessa Woods, author of the new book, Bonobo Handshake. Vanessa is a Research Scientist in Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University and studies the cognition of chimpanzees and bonobos in Congo.

When I wake up this morning, someone might try to kill me. I live 10 minutes from a small town called Durham, NC, where according to the last statistics, 22 people were killed, 76 women were raped, and there were 682 cases of aggravated assault. When a chimpanzee wakes up in the morning, they probably have the same thought. In fact, if you’re a male chimpanzee, you’re more likely to be killed by another chimpanzee than anything else. If you’re a female chimpanzee, expect to be beaten by every adolescent male who is making his way up through the ranks.

People often ask me why humans are so intelligent, as in, what is it other apes lack that makes us so unique.

I’ll tell you this: I would swap every gadget I own – my car, my laptop, the potential to fly to the moon – if I could wake up as a bonobo. No bonobo has ever been seen to kill another bonobo. There is very little violence towards females. The infants get an idyllic childhood where they do nothing but hang out with their moms and get anything they want. There is plenty of food. Lots of sex.

And yet, according to one of our studies, 75% of people have no idea what a bonobo is.

This isn’t really our fault. It’s been 13 years since Frans de Waal published Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape, and since then, there has not been one popular book published on bonobos until I wrote Bonobo Handshake which is out today.

Compare this to over 300 books published on polar bears, 240 books on chimpanzees, and 380 books on mosquitoes.

This is partly because bonobos are so rare. There are as few as 10,000 left in the wild (so when I say I want to wake up as a bonobo, it has to be out of range of humans). And they only live in one country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has suffered the bloodiest war since World War II.

But it’s also because politicians, scientists, and the media have been trying very hard to pretend they don’t exist. Why?

Bonobos have gay sex. For bonobos, sex is a mechanism to reduce tension. And you can’t talk about two females rubbing clitorises together until they orgasm in documentaries, intelligent design classes, or to right wing demographics who believe homosexuality is unnatural.

Bonobos are not considered to be family friendly, despite the fact that children can see people cut up, blown up and shot before 8pm on television.

When it comes to scientists, even scientists who I like and admire, only ever refer to ‘our closest living relative, the chimpanzee’. There is never any mention that we have TWO closest living relatives, the chimpanzee and the bonobo.

If scientists do speak about them, they are constantly trying to neuter them. Bonobo researchers get annoyed by bonobos’ reputation of being the over sexed ape, and are constantly downplaying the differences between bonobos and chimps. Even in cognition studies, despite Kanzi, bonobos are rarely tested for cognition because ‘we’ve already done this in chimps, why should we do it in bonobos?’

As for politicians, bonobos never had a chance. Acknowledging the existence of an ape who shares 98.7% of our DNA (suggesting descent with modification i.e. evolution), has homosexual interactions, and is female dominated, is completely out of the question.

Microsoft spell check doesn’t even register ‘bonobo’ as a word.

And so bonobos have remained, locked in the cupboard like an embarrassing relative.

As a lemur scientist once said to me, ‘So what? No one knows about sifakas’ (the dancing lemurs, even though they do, because of the cartoon Madagascar) ‘why should bonobos be any different?’

Because bonobos hold the key to a world without war. Their physiology, biochemistry, and psychology is set up to avoid violence. The fact that sex is their mechanism to reduce tension is irrelevant. We need to study the hell out of bonobos and use our big fat brains to find our own mechanism so we can live peacefully.

We’ve had 26 days without war since WWII. Despite cognitively knowing that we need to cooperate and get along (and in some instances we excel at this – but not  health care reform), our emotions get in the way.

We have to find a way to be more like bonobos. They share 98.7% of our DNA. What’s in that 1.3% that makes them the way they are? And if we can use hummingbird flight to make helicopters and cat’s eyes to make reflector lights, why can’t we use bonobos to make peace on earth?

2010 is going to be the year of bonobos. With my book coming out, Sara Gruen releasing the first fiction about bonobos, and the bonobo genome due any day, expect bonobos to move to the front of public consciousness.

Stay tuned for more articles on how bonobos are gonna rock your world.

My new book Bonobo Handshake is out today. It’s available on Amazon, or through my website www.bonobohandshake.com.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Books, Conservation
MORE ABOUT: bonobos, vanessa woods

Comments (25)

  1. Steve Chaplin

    Such a succinct and revealing column. Thank you Vanessa! BTW, there is already a waiting list for the book at our public library and I’ve just requested our university library purchase copies.

  2. Art

    What a strange world…

  3. ponderingfool

    We’ve had 26 days without war since WWII. Despite cognitively knowing that we need to cooperate and get along (and in some instances we excel at this – but not health care reform), our emotions get in the way.
    Isn’t this really an over-simplification of reality?

    Also isn’t the 98.7 % shared DNA misleading? Is that comparing individual genes or the entire genome? Copy number does matter as do regulatory elements & ncRNAs.

    I think we should do more for bonobos research but over hyping is not the way to go.

  4. Green Woodpecker

    >2010 is going to be the year of bonobos. With my book coming out, Sara Gruen releasing the >first fiction about bonobos,

    Not exactly the first – I remember reading a book called “Primal Tears” a few years ago in which the main character was a Bonobo:


  5. Alan Davidson

    Thanks, Vanessa, a great way to introduce us to these fascinating creatures. As for ponderingfool’s comments, well, I’m no expert on DNA, so I can’t say. Perhaps you might want to address that. But I do know that when you say, as ponderingfool does, that something is over-simplifying you have to explain in what way, otherwise the comment doesn’t tell us anything.

    If bonobos are oriented towards peace then that seems worth studying. If anything saves even one life that seems a better investment of our time than just writing comments saying that something is an oversimplification – but not specifying why you hold that opinion.

    Great work, Vanessa, I look forward to reading your book.

  6. ponderingfool

    Alan it is an over-simplification to suggest that we wage war because our emotions get in the way of our ability to see cooperation as a good thing. There are plenty of reasons not based on emotion to wage war (to obtain resources, to improve living conditions, etc.). War is far more complex than what Vanessa Wood states. To offer bonobos as the means by which to reach world peace is a true stretch of the imagination. It is BS and people will be turned off by it who otherwise would support such research.

    Research on bonobos likely will provide greater insight into decreasing violence between us humans. Why not state that instead of over-selling? As you said Alan, preventing one person’s violent death is valuable. Their is a cost of over-selling.

  7. Sooooo many comments! Thank you all for engaging in discussion!

    There is over simplifying and over complicating. I can’t remember all the conversations about all the wars I’ve listened to in my short life. And it’s always about, who’s responsible, who started it, what are we going to do now. In some cases, like Middle East conflict, reporters cover ancient conflict. But where does it all come from?

    There is a biological basis to aggression. We need to face up to that. In early hunter gatherer societies, the murder rate of humans is about the same as chimps. Now, weapons make war more efficient.

    Yes the bonobo genome (which is being published soon) differs from the human genome by hundreds of thousands of nucleotides. But it only differs from the chimp genome by a few thousand. Because chimps and bonobos are each closer to us in some ways than they are to each other, we can compare bonobo/chimp, then know where to look on the human genome for genes responsible for our behavior.

    Why do we go to war in the first place? Why have we always gone to war? Anyone wanting to plumb the depths of these questions should read Demonic Males, by Richard Wrangham.

    Bonobos don’t have war because they seem to have a mechanism to overcome conflict. What is our mechanism?

    I know Gottfried, and I know his work. I’m not saying bonobos have no violence, they do. But in chimps, violence is to assert dominance and maintain control. In bonobos, violence is used to keep the peace. Also, Gottfried gets frustrated with hyperbole about the hippie over sexed ape. But I get frustrated that no one knows what they are or why they are important. There are as few as 10,000 left in the wild, the time for understatement is over.

    Bonobos have something to tell us. I think we should be trying to figure out what that is before they go extinct.

  8. ps. There are many factors to war. One of them is biological. Shouldn’t we study the one species in which this factor is not an issue?

  9. ponderingfool

    “There is a biological basis to aggression. We need to face up to that. In early hunter gatherer societies, the murder rate of humans is about the same as chimps. Now, weapons make war more efficient.”
    No denying aggression is biologically based. Everything we do is biologically based. I think it is important to study bonobos but hyperbole is not going to save the day. It is going to get people to roll their eyes and ignore an important issue while also feeding apathy people have towards science.

    “But in chimps, violence is to assert dominance and maintain control. In bonobos, violence is used to keep the peace.”
    Maybe it is the politics minor in me (and an aversion to Bush), but what is the difference in keeping the peace and maintaining control? That comes across as a subjective decision when to call one situation “keeping the peace” and the other “maintaining control”.

    As for the DNA, what does the 98.7% represent? across the entire genome? Comparing orthologs? Such a specific number needs context. When another writer cites a different number (representing a different comparison) it will confuse people and for some turn them off. For what you are writing, why even get into the complexity? Close relative is enough to say. That is what is important.

  10. Guy

    One limiting factor with a peace loving species is that they don’t develop adequate defenses against more aggressive types. Imagine how quickly a nation could be conquered if it had no standing army to defend against foreign invaders. Diplomacy can only do so much when you have something a more warlike/aggressive tribe wants.

  11. I’m looking forward to your other posts and your book. I would say more (about how the status quo is supported by assuming that we’re like chimps) but it is way too hot and I’m helping kids with homework.

  12. Hey Guy,

    Au contraire. Bonobos do have a defense against violence. If a male bonobo becomes aggressive, the females will damn near rip his testicles off. (I’ve seen this happen). But in chimpanzees, this aggression is about climbing up the heirarchy, in bonobos, in maintaining peace.

    It is an essential part of cooperation that you have to be prepared to retaliate. I too was traumatised by Bush, but I don’t think for a second anyone thought that war was about maintaining the peace.

    By the way, what do you guys think of this email I just got:

    I am thankful for your research. It’s very thought-provoking for me. I think we would probably differ on the implications of your research regarding the naturalness of homosexuality, but as I stated, it is very interesting.

    Here are some of my thoughts:

    I believe that Scripture teaches that God created a perfect world. In this perfect world, man chose to disobey (sin), and brokenness and death entered into the world (Gen. 3, Rom. 5). We see it everyday on TV, newspapers, etc… You obviously alluded to a sense of brokenness in the article, as you mentioned violence & wars.
    With sin, I believe what Scripture says, when it states that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Not only are there individual sins, but also a corruption due to sin. One of these particular sins listed in Scripture is homosexuality. I single it out, only because of the implications of your research. I don’t think it’s worse than other sins, but neither have I departed from the traditional understanding of what Scripture teaches (ex: Rom. 1).

    Here’s why I find this article so thought-provoking.
    I have a four-year old son named Owen who loves animals. He stays up at night with a flashlight looking through books in his bed, and says things like, “I’m doing research on whales.” You guys would instantly connect :).
    When I read your article about bonobos, I of course, thought of Owen. He would love them. But, I had to ask the question, “Am I comfortable with him learning about bonobos and their behaviors?” It’s a good question for me to ask myself. If I’m honest, I would say my first reaction was to shield him from these animals because of their behavior. This wouldn’t be uncharacteristic for us, since there are lots of animal behaviors that are difficult for a four-year old to understand (i.e. mating, violence, etc…). However, what’s different about this particular behavior is that in an orthodox biblical position, homosexuality is a sin… but animals don’t sin. We don’t typically place animals in a moral category. In other words, they don’t do righteous acts or unrighteous acts. So…what am I to make of these animals that engage in homosexual activity?

    It seems to me that this behavior reveals a sense of brokenness in the natural world. Paul spoke of the unnaturalness of homosexuality, “men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men…”(Rom. 1:27). So, what he says is unnatural, now looks to be natural! But, just as natural disasters aren’t normative, neither is homosexual activity within animals. The creation itself is marred with the effects of sin (i.e. death).

    I think bonobos are fascinating creatures and still point to the creativity and beauty of God. However, it leads me to Romans 8, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (vv. 20-23).

    Thanks for your research and challenging us to think through the implications of our beliefs and convictions. While we would differ on the implications of your research, I have great respect for you and am thankful for your research.

  13. Neuro-conservative

    This kind of drivel is exactly why scientists do not trust journalists to be able to think straight.

  14. Brian Too

    I’ll take a stab at this (look out! Violence based metaphor!).

    Seems to me like the bonobos cooperative social systems are based upon more than sex. I mean, people have a LOT of sex, of all varieties. It’s not as all-pervasive as in bonobo interactions, but human sexual activity goes far beyond reproductive necessity, and far beyond that of most other species I know of.

    The squeamishness concerning bonobo sexual practices goes beyond the gay issue too. Last I heard, bonobos also routinely engage in activities we would term as incest, child abuse, sexual compulsion, and so on. Bonobos are difficult to watch unless you can completely abandon anthropomorphic thinking.

  15. Anindya "Rana" Sinha

    Thanks, Vanessa, for the book! I do look forward to reading it.

    As a primatologist, I was wondering whether what we call “sex” in bonobos should truly be considered so. What I am suggesting, therefore, is that across all species (including humans), sex is used for procreation and that, I guess, is sex. Humans definitely use the sexual act for pleasure and let’s then continue to call this sex. If, however, bonobos do use the same act for seeking help or releasing tension or peacemaking, then perhaps (and we can definitely define it as such) this is not “sex”. It is a bodily act that serves a specific function, just as shaking hands could be considered a sign of an affiliative action in some socities but could be considered a taboo, “sexual” interaction in another society. If this can be accepted thus, many of us would perhaps heave a sigh of relief and the bonobos could finally get out of their “over-sexed” label. I am with my friend, Gottfried, in this! As for orgasm, I am not sure whether they always reach orgasm during these interactions. If they do, it could be considered a byproduct of this bodily interaction, and if they don’t, q.e.d!

    In fact, I had the same reaction when a series of studies were published several years ago reporting homosexual activity in female Japanese macaques. Although some of these could perhaps have been genuinely homosexual acts, mounting of a female by another was often used to establish social dominance – an extremely common phenomenon amongst male macaques, virtually across all species. Yet, we never call them homosexual!

    Just a thought – but thank you once again, Vanessa, for what promises, no doubt, to be a fascinating account of a fascinating species. Whether there is something to be learnt from them is another issue, but we certainly do need to know them before they disappear in the twilight of our times.

  16. John Grehan

    The lack of attention given to bonobo sex may or may not be a critical factor, but no less critical is the possiblity that it is the orangutan, and not the bonobo and chimp that is our nearest living relative. One may make a lot of claims about the percentage DNA simialarity, but there is nothing factual to suggest that this is necessarily proof of a closer relationship.

    In sexual and reproductive behavior humans are not only more like orangutans, but some fetures are uniquely shared within the large bodied hominoids(e.g. lack of genital swelling during the menstrural cycle, prolonged average intromission, similar female and male genital structure). If people don’t want to talk about bonobos because of the sex this is perhaps not much different to scientists and science media not wanting to talk about the orangutan similarities to humans and the implications for their having a unique common ancestor.

    Homosexuality is present in orangutans and other primates so the bonobo is not the only example. The pervasive use of sex as a means of social mediation in bonobos does would seem to show how much they are not like humans in this respect.

    John Grehan

  17. ponderingfool

    One may make a lot of claims about the percentage DNA simialarity, but there is nothing factual to suggest that this is necessarily proof of a closer relationship.
    Molecular evolution is just BS? Carl Woese would beg to differ.

  18. Jim Moore

    The differences in % DNA similarity are indeed difficult to interpret, but there’s some relevant data from neuroanatomy. Katerina Semendeferi’s group has documented similarity in the size of part of the brain involved in social behavior between bonobos and humans (ie, in relative size terms, bonobos’ area 13 is closer to humans’ than to chimpanzees’):
    “The limbic frontal cortex forms part of the neural substrate responsible for emotional reactions to social stimuli. … The human and the bonobo include a complex orbitofrontal cortex and a relatively smaller area 13. On the contrary the orangutan stands out by having a shorter orbitofrontal region and a more expanded area 13.
    Differences in the organization and size of individual cortical areas involved in emotional reactions and social behavior can be related to behavioral specializations of each hominoid and to the evolution of emotions in hominids.” Semendeferi et al. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 106:129–155 (1998)

    I have to note, they use *only* brains of individuals who have died from causes unrelated to research (it’s tricky saying “natural causes” for captives, but that’s the essence).

    I think the data support chimpanzees as being the better model for human evolution, but that does NOT mean bonobos are irrelevant OR that we can’t learn important lessons about mechanisms underlying the expression of violence of various sorts in all the apes (including ourselves). Whether understanding will help us to be less violent as a species … one can only hope.

  19. Alan Davidson


    Your religious emailer has a problem – it’s one that has troubled all honest Christians: If people decided to sin after living in a perfect world, then where did the decision come from? If everything was created by God, then God created the aspect of humankind that led to the decision! And if the decision emanated from elsewhere, then from whom? And how?

    This is a perfectly valid question, surely, and one that Christians have to explain rather than skate over. In my view, it would have been impossible for an omniscient being not to know that his creation was going to go severely off-track.

    As a devout agnostic, I don’t think there is a problem in explaining our imperfect behavior; I believe that there are factors (like shortages of resources) which encourage us to pursue interests that lead us into conflict with others. This doesn’t mean that we should stand by and do nothing, but rather that we should understand and use this understanding to create a less conflict-ridden society. This isn’t something that Christianity can do since it simply labels our negative behavior as innate – we supposedly are born in sin.

    Anyway, Vanessa, great article, I can understand ponderfool’s concern that things can be oversimplified, but we do need to get a message out that will keep these amazing creatures alive and may help us too. Thank you for doing that.

  20. John Grehan

    In reply to ‘ponderingfool’ – not it does not mean that molecular evolution is BS, just that sequence similarities may not always get the right answer.

    In reply to Jim Moore – the relatively smaller area 13 apepars to represent a potential synapomorphy for humans and bonobs, i.e. that bonobos are most closely realted to humans in this feature, followed by the gibbon being more closely related to humans and bonobos than the other great apes. Given that gibbons are not seen to have this close relationship the proportional similarity of area 13 in humans and bonobos would have to be seen as having an origin independant of the evolutionary sequence.

    The Semendeferi et al paper includes quite a variety of measurements that may or may not be phylogenetically significant (they not the need for more sampling). Humans and orangutans have the lowest neuronal density, but whether that difference is significnat compared with the bonobo with the next lowest is anyone’s guess.

    John Grehan

  21. Jim Moore

    John Grehan suggests that because gibbons have the next lowest relative size of area 13, the bonobo-human similarity must be convergent. The conclusion may or may not be right, but the logic is unconvincing. And yes, more samples are needed (it’s notable that most other cytoarchitectonic studies have been based on a single brain (sometimes just one hemisphere) per species); Semendferi’s group has been leading in changing that. It is painstaking work, and I can imagine (some) proposal reviewers saying “why do another brain – we’ve already GOT one”. Had a case with a grad student doing behavioral work – no need to fund a *second* quantitative study of bonobo reconciliation (no kidding – reviewer actually said that). Sigh.

  22. John Grehan

    It is possible that the similarity between humans and bonobos does represent a synapomorphy, but by itself it does not provide any such evidence. Evidence of relationship is made by the total set of characters supporting each relationship. In the case of the bonobo there currently appear to be more features supporting their being more closely related to chimps than humans so the commonality of human and bonobo area 13 relative size would have to be viewed as convergent anyway.

    The orangutan evidence does not presuppose that there are no uniquely shared features between humans and bonobos, or humans and chimpanzees, or with both. But at present the reality seems to be that humans share far more features uniquely in common with orangutans (at least 30 well documented features) than chimps or bonobos (perhaps 2-3 such features). Even in face to face mating that was highlight for bonobos has a more common occurence between males and females in humans and orangutans than bonobos.

    Semendferi’s work is important and I hope in future she will be able to corroborate or falsify apparent similarities between the human and orangutan brain with respect to asymmetry and the sylvian sulcus.

    John Grehan

  23. Melissbian

    With so few gracile chimpanzees (bonobos are, after all, chimpanzees; the distinction between pan paniscus and pan troglodytes should be one of size, as their extreme genetic closeness with robust chimpanzees and cladistics dictates) in free-living situations, why would you advocate for the increased use of them in captive research? While the same issue exists for other large-bodied apes, robust chimpanzees are used most often in cognitive and biomedical research because of their dual-listing under the Endangered Species Act by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Free-living robust chimpanzees are considered “endangered,” while captive robust chimpanzees are considered “threatened.” This makes it much easier for we humans to run tests on them (both cognitive and biomedical). Advocating for further cognitive research on captive gracile chimpanzees means that you are advocating for the continued imprisonment and breeding of (as you point out) our other closest relative. There is no way that humans can possibly offer enough psychological stimulation and enrichment to simulate a free-living situation.

    I would be interested to hear your views on the current conditions of captive gracile chimpanzees across the US, as well as the world, and would be interested to learn how the benefits of such research might out-weigh the costs to the imprisoned individuals.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs.For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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