Women Against Violence – Be More Bonobo!

By Chris Mooney | May 31, 2010 8:16 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.

In the US, 600 women are sexually assaulted every day. One woman is beaten by her partner every 15 seconds. Despite education campaigns and law enforcement, and penalties, violence continues to threaten women throughout America. What can we do to make women safe?

I believe bonobos may have the answer. Once I saw Tatango, an unusually aggressive bonobo male, run up to Mimi, the alpha female, and backhand her across the face. He hit her so hard he almost gave her whiplash. Within seconds, five females in the group ran to Mimi’s rescue. They chased Tatango around the night building until he fled into the forest. When he continued his aggressive outbursts, those five females beat him so badly, they damn near ripped off his testicles. After that, Tatango never caused another problem.

One male is stronger than any one female. But no male is stronger than many females. As women, we tend to isolate ourselves. At the office, we backstab our female colleagues and women are mostly bullied by other women.

In this way, we are more like chimpanzees. Like us, chimpanzees are male dominated. Females don’t form strong friendships. They tend to spend a lot of time alone. And when the males reach adolescence, they start battering every female in the group. Like in humans, most of the beatings aren’t about doing a lot of damage, they are about asserting dominance and maintaining control.

Scientific research has already shown that women are more intimate and emotional in their friendships than men, they turn to female friends in times of stress, and our very biochemistry is set up to benefit by female bonding.

The true purpose of a sisterhood isn’t to have gossip buddies, a sewing circle, or a lunch gang. It is a powerful alliance that will protect and shelter you from the battering of work, life, and the occasional chimpanzee male.

As the Czech proverb goes, don’t protect yourself with a fence, but rather with your friends.

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

Mimi, the alpha female, and Tatango, the marauding male.

lr bnb08 7lr bnb08 58


Comments (12)

  1. johnq

    The description of bonobo behavior, and the contrast to that of chimpanzees, is interesting. The attempt to draw lessons for human behavior is just silly. There is a long history of misusing animal behavior to justify certain human behaviors as “natural,” and therefore somehow right (e.g., Social Darwinism).

    In this case, the behavior of the male bonobo (or that of chimpanzees) is no less “natural” than that of the bonobo females, and any decision to favor one over the other as a lesson for human behavior is necessarily grounded not in the animal behavior itself, but in our own preconceptions.

    Violence against women is obviously wrong, but bonobo behavior has nothing to teach us on this subject, since there is no legitimate basis for distinguishing between bonobo behavior and chimpanzee behavior in this respect, and doing so because we prefer one behavior to the other simply sets us up for arguments that other human behaviors that we don’t like are equally justified by appeals to the animal kingdom.

    That strong animals kill weak animals was once used as justification for arguing that richer human beings should ignore any obligations to poorer human beings. Bigots used to argue that human homosexuality was “unnatural” since animals allegedly don’t engage in homosexual acts. We now know this to be false, but would bigotry against gays be any less wrong if no other species practiced homosexuality?

    Professor Woods: your research into bonobos is fascinating, in its implications regarding group dynamics and intelligence in non-human species. By cherry-picking those animal behaviors you prefer, and arguing that humans should emulate those particular behaviors, you’re at best trivializing your research and at worst contributing to a long and intellectually-dubious human practice of justifying our own prejudices by appealing to those particular animal behaviors that seem most supportive of those prejudices. I fully support your argument that violence against women is wrong, and that women (and men) should unite against this evil. But please leave the bonobos (and the chimpanzees) out of it.

  2. I like the Czech proverb. Yes–support from friends is a way to deal with bullies and that is true whether the bullies are same or opposite gender. The reason we are more like Chimps is that our society is male dominated and people cozy up to power to get a bit of it reflected back, rather than standing shoulder to shoulder with the powerless. You can see this in the demise of unions. You can also see this in the recent financial debacle. In order to avoid economic meltdown and losing more jobs, the American taxpayer bailed out the financial institutions through government handouts at no interest. This was subsequently loaned back to the government by those institutions (in the form of treasury bills) with interest. They have had record profits this year. Chimps have nothing on the screwing power of humans. I’m all for sisters standing together, especially since I have 2 daughters, but I wonder: what will empower girls to do so when they see men holding the cards?

  3. Nullius in Verba

    Obvious question: why don’t the male Bonobos form gangs, as well?

  4. Marci

    While I find bonobo behavior fascinating, I have two major issues I want to bring up:

    1) I totally agree that women sometimes contribute to “victim blaming” in violence against women, we can’t forget that the most frequent perpetrators are actually men, and that without men speaking up against sexual assault, it will continue to be used as a weapon of power against women.

    2) Most sexual assaults occur with someone we know, not out in the woods with some rogue stranger. If we can create an environment where it is not so taboo for women to talk about sexual assault, or not so legally daunting, then maybe women can work together in a more open and empowering way than simply retaliating.

  5. Nullius in Verba

    I hadn’t intended to get involved in the sexual politics – but it might be worth noting that when it comes to assaults generally, men are victims far more often than women. And male chimpanzees suffer from the dominance-related violence too.

    Feminist campaigners might find it useful to keep that in mind, when you get male support and male protection from violence. Don’t protect yourself by building a fence against men.

  6. Johnq,

    I do not believe that the author of the book was ascribing bonobo behavior as natural to humans, or that chimp behavior was somehow not. That they are both natural models is clear. Humans, unlike apparently either bonobos and chimps, can alter their behavior models, and this is clear in female-dominated societies in our own world, as much as in male-dominated. The latter happens to outnumber the former by an exponentially large number, and even then some human male-dominated societies do not always treat their females in such a manner as others do, and this tells us that we can flexibly alter the way it works. White society is still male-dominated, and no amount of apologetics will solve this.

  7. sHx

    I think johnq above has provided a very good, very comprehensive answer and I wholly endorse it. I just wanted to add that reading Tatango and Mimi’s story I am left with the impression that vigilantism is good. Surely, that can’t be the moral of the story, Shirley.

  8. ponderingfool

    I am left with the impression that vigilantism is good. Surely, that can’t be the moral of the story, Shirley.
    Vigilantism is your read on the story. You could have easily have said law & justice. Why did you choose vigilantism? Reveals more about you than it does about bonobos.

    And Shirley? The author is Vanessa Woods.

  9. Nullius in Verba

    Law is the vigilantism of the government. But either way, it is applying a human social framework to a situation where it might not apply.

    There are too many unanswered questions about this story to come to judgement about whether it is right, wrong, applicable to humans, or whatever. I get the distinct impression that it was written with the intention that the reader should come to a particular conclusion, but that conclusion only follows if you make a certain choice of assumptions, without evidence.

    Why did Tatango attack Mimi? Was it justified? It is mentioned that Mimi was alpha female – what does that mean, and how does one become an alpha female? Is it through forming alliances able to dominate by violence, or through wisdom and knowledge, or popularity, or what? Why do the males not form gangs as well? What’s going on? What does it mean in a Bonobo cultural context?

    Suppose we reverse roles and species, and see how our assumptions stand up. You see a teenage woman run up and slap the alpha male across the face. A group of five of the alpha’s male friends charge, and beat the girl up, until she stops her attacks. She never causes trouble again.

    Do you see how our human-based social assumptions lead us into deducing more than we’re actually told? Anthropology is famously a very difficult subject; trying to get the level of cultural detachment to see things as they are, not as you expect. If Bonobo society is matriarchal, wouldn’t it be valid to reverse the sex roles before interpreting? Or is Bonobo society an entirely separate thing – without direct human analogue – to be judged on its own terms?

    I can’t see how to extract any moral from the story without a lot more information. And isn’t that what law is about?

  10. Doug

    A few of you have left interesting, thought out posts and show your ability to separate animal behavior from that of bonobos. Too many people spend some time studying animals, especially great apes, and then try to compare our behaviors and think we should act like them as in the case here with bonobos. Its flawed thinking, kind spirited, by flawed. This is not the way one should receive their great ape education.

  11. Andrew

    regarding why males don’t form similar groups. I’ve gone through all my textbooks and the PIN on this, I don’t think we have any solid answers. In fact, it’s actually pretty paradoxical because the males are related whereas the females are not (due to female dispersal, which is true of both bonobos and chimpanzees) .

    If you would ask me to hazard a guess, though, I’d say it had to do more with the social rules of bonobo life. Male chimps do create such alliances (though they’re frequently ‘fickle’), for defense from other chimp groups, to secure alliances, and to hunt. However, no bonobo groups have ever been known to attack each other as in chimps, bonobo hierarchy for males is determined by one’s mother’s status, and bonobos do not hunt for meat. There’s really nothing to gain by forming a group for a bonobo male, so why bother?

  12. Barbara Parkhill

    I believe many of the above reviewers failed to understand what Ms. Woods advocates. She has merely pin pointed a strategy that women could use in their political relations with men–solidarity among “the second sex”!


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

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.


See More

Collapse bottom bar