Are we best characterized by hate or by love? What is most critical for survival: competition or cooperation? Are we more like chimpanzees or bonobos?
Chimpanzees and Bonobos are the two species of the Pan genus, our closest genetic relatives. Together, they share more DNA with us than any other species in the world.
They have a lot to teach us, about our natural behaviour, about how we learn, and how we evolved into our current state.
Since one of my favourite topics in the world is the subject of human nature (and, in turn, evolutionary psychology) I have gathered a lot of information on these creatures over the years. I've read books about their behaviour, watched documentaries about their society, and overall it has helped me paint a better picture of human life.
Most readers will be familiar with the Chimpanzee - the species everybody thinks of when they hear the word "monkey". It amazes us that, even though they are obviously hair-covered animals, they act like us in so many ways. This naturally leads to the sharp, in-your-face comedy value present on any YouTube video with that word in the title.
We know that Chimpanzees are agressive. They are known for their violence, their territorial nature, and everything basic and primative about humans, the stuff we'd rather not acknowledge.
But what most people don't know is that there is another species of ape, the Bonobo, which shares just as much DNA with us as the Chimp. And these apes might just be the exact opposite of Chimpanzees in every way.
First of all, Bonobos have Alpha Females. Rather than male leaders, girls are always in charge. Second, there is no violence. Bonobos rarely use physical confrontations, they prefer to stay peaceful with one another.
Thirdly, if Bonobos could be summarized in one sentence, it would be, "Make love, not war." And I mean that literally. Bonobos make love in all possible permutations and combinations: males with females, males with males, females with females, and even infants with adults. They figure, just as their reproductive organs were made to give life, they can give pleasure, too, whenever it is needed.
Bonobos use sex to appease, to bond, to make up after a fight, to ease tensions, to cement alliances. Humans generally wait until after a nice meal to make love; bonobos do it beforehand, to alleviate the stress and competitiveness often seen among animals when they encounter a source of food.
Lest this all sound like a nonstop Caligulean orgy, Dr. Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University in Atlanta who is the author of "Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape," emphasizes otherwise. "Sex is there, it's pervasive, it's critical, and bonobo society would collapse without it," he said in an interview. "But it's not what people think it is. It's not driven by orgasm or seeking release. Nor is it often reproductively driven. Sex for a bonobo is casual, it's quick and once you're used to watching it, it begins to look like any other social interaction."
Can you imagine living in a world where humans behaved like this? There would be no wars, no rape. No sexual tension, no confusing blockades on what is and isn't acceptable. People would be at peace.
Of course, in reality it doesn't work that way. Humans are a different species, after all, and since we split from the Pan genus around 5 million years ago, we must accept that if we are anything like apes, we're a combination of two relatives, Bonobos and Chimpanzees.
Those two species have always lived in Africa, divided by the Congo river. But ever since our ancestors left the jungle, we have covered new ground faster than any living thing before. Oh, the things we have achieved. We've mastered space travel. We've started thousands of religions. We created the world wide web.
However, life is far from perfect, especially in some parts of the world.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo, the only place in the world where our relatives are still alive in the wild, is also covered by human ground. And it is a place of conflict. An intense, violent, non-stop struggle.
Since the outbreak of fighting in August 1998,
Some 5.4 million people have died
It has been the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II
The vast majority have actually died from non-violent causes such as malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia and malnutrition—all typically preventable in normal circumstances, but have come about because of the conflict
Although 19% of the population, children account for 47% of the deaths
Although many have returned home as violence has slightly decreased, there are still some 1.5 million internally displaced or refugees
Some 45,000 continue to die each month
What is really disturbing is the nature of this violence. A far cry from the Bonobos on the other side of the river, using sex to resolve their conflict peacefully. Not only do these armed forces use rape, they use it as a weapon of war. To destroy.
The prevalence and intensity of sexual violence against women in eastern Congo are "almost unimaginable," the top U.N. humanitarian official said Saturday after visiting the country's most fragile region, where militia groups have preyed on the civilian population for years.
Holmes spoke at length about the stories he heard from women who had been raped by members of various armed groups, including the Congolese army. The degree of the brutality and humiliation involved -- women being gang-raped in front of crowds including their husbands, for instance -- were particularly disturbing, Holmes said.
"It's the scale and brutality of it," he said, grasping for words. "It's the use of it as a weapon of terror. It's the way it's done publicly, for maximum humiliation. It's hard to understand."
This kind of conflict has many, many consequences. It tears communities apart. It has caused all kinds of epidemics, from sexually transmitted diseases to emotional trauma.
All kinds of people are directly harmed as a consequence of this turmoil. But it also creates more unexpected situations, as not just people, but other species are effected...
According to this article, large numbers of Chimpanzees have begun attacking villagers in the Congo. It seems, after all the conflict they have endured, they now see humans as a threat.
Around certain villages, there are now large numbers of primates that have fled their original habitat, due to armed conflicts and deforestation. Most recently, fighting broke out last spring in the North Kivu region over disputes around the implementation of a 2009 peace agreement The United Nations esimates that the violence has displaced nearly half a million people since April.
But the fighting is just the latest disruption to the primates' habitats. "These animals have been attacked, killed, and eaten by soldiers for a long time. I think they are avenging themselves against humans for the atrocities they have suffered during the wars," says a village chief in Bwito. "They must consider humans as their enemies."
Very disturbing news. What would happen if there was a full Chimpanzee uprising? Would they cause serious damage to the human population? Would they show the same, terrible behaviour as us?
Well, given that humans outnumber chimps on this planet by a factor of about 700,000, and know how to use firearms, I don't think we need to worry about going extinct ourselves. But that sheds more light on the second question.
We have seen how some groups of humans can use sadism during conflict. We have seen how they use rape and sexual violence. Not just to relief tension, sexual or aggressive. Not just to excersize control over others. But, simply, to make other people suffer. Just as guns were created to kill, these people use sex to inflict misery, as an organized, calculated weapon of warfare.
Would Chimpanzees do this, given the chance? Well, here is some discussion on the subject by PhD Frans de Waal, taken from Our Inner Ape.
Chapter 3, Part 6.
Whether we have humans or apes in mind, involuntary intercourse is better looked at as an *option* available to any male who desires a female and is able to control her. Bonobo males lack this option since the females are dominant and hence never resort to anything even remotely like it. Chimp males are different, however, and forcing females into sex is not beyond them.
Wild female chimps are vulnerable as they often travel alone. Males may get away from the tense atmosphere with other males by taking a swollen [in season] female on a "safari." They tale her to the periphery of the community territories for days on end, sometimes months. This is dangerous because, being so close to the neighbors, they risk deadly attacks. The female may follow willingly, but oftentimes it's a forced date. It's not unusual for males to attack females, coercing them to stay close. The most telling illustration of this is the discovery of "wife-beating" equipment in one chimp community.
Even though chimps have been known to use branches and sticks to hit predators, such as leapords, armed attacks on members of one's own species were, until recently, considered uniquely human. And the habit of beating females seems to have spread, because several other Kibale males have now been seen doing the same. Most attacks are directed at swollen females and always involve wooden weapons, which the investigators see as a sign of restraint. The males could also use rocks, but this might actually harm or kill their mates, which is not in their interest. They want to force obedience and usually end up mating with the females they beat.
So, Chimpanzees are capable of forcing sex, and even using weapons as a means of coercion. But how does this compare to the armed forces of the Congo?
Well, first of all, these Chimpanzees are not using sex for the same purpose. Here, in the example given, they are most likely looking for sexual pleasure outside their own group. While their behaviour is coercive and, indeed, abusive, what we are looking at here is their exact motivation.
They are described using wooden weapons (branches and sticks) to attack their victims. Again, this is barbaric behaviour. But we need to understand what their real motivation is. It seems they don't intend to kill or injure their victims, only to make their demands possible.
Again, "The males could also use rocks, but this might actually harm or kill their mates, which is not in their interest."
So, as far as Chimpanzees are concerned, this is about as bad as it gets. There are many examples of non-consensual sex in the wild, but when it comes to the many thousands of rape victims at the DRC, nothing comes close.
At the event last month, many people in the audience covered their mouths as they listened. Some could not bear it and burst out of the room crying.
One speaker, Claudine Mwabachizi, told how she was kidnapped by bandits in the forest, strapped to a tree and repeatedly gang-raped. The bandits did unspeakable things, she said, like disemboweling a pregnant woman right in front of her. “A lot of us keep these secrets to ourselves,” she said.
The documentary reporter interviewed a Congolese man whose family was attacked by uniformed men in 2008. He was bound hand and foot and beaten for 3 hours, during which he watched as they killed his whole family, including his two children, before cutting off their heads. Then they left him for dead. In 2010, he was attacked again by men in uniform. He believes they targeted him specifically after discovering he was still alive. They took him blindfolded and bound in a van, to a barracks with other prisoners.
There, he was sexually tortured and raped, for 4 or 5 days. He says he was semi-conscious for much of it, the pain was so great. Then they loaded him into a van, drove him out into the bush, and raped him again. He asked them to kill him. They laughed and left him lying there.
One of the women, Lumo Furaha, testified: “.... Over 50 armed men took me and another woman to the bush where they raped us over and over again. After, they pulled us like goats to the main road where they left us abandoned. Luckily, we were found by some men and eventually I was taken to the Goma hospital where I have had nine surgeries, but yet to be fixed.
“.... I don’t understand, the men did it with objects, it wasn’t from any physical desire. The only answer I have is that they wanted to destroy me; destroy my body and kill my spirit. I am speaking out because I don’t want any child of the next generation to have to live through what I have lived through.”
This may be a devastating topic, but one very important thing to consider is that this only covers a vast minority of human beings, when compared to our seven billion strong population. This doesn't happen all over the world, ands it is certainly not a part of human nature. Let's hear another quote from Frans de Waal.
A recent book claiming that rape is natural caused incredible uproar mainly because it was seen as an attempt to justify this behavior. The idea originally derived from research on insects, in which some species have anatomical features - a sort of clamp - that help males force females into sex. Men obviously lack such features, and even though the underlying psychology of rape (such as violent predispositions or lack of empathy) may very well have a genetic side, to think that rape itself is encoded into us is like assuming some people are born to burn down houses or write books. The human species is far too loosely programmed for such highly specific beahaviour to be genetic.
Ingrained behavior is rare in our closest relatives, and it is even rarer in ourselves. There are few examples of human behavior that is both universal and develops early in life - the two best criteria for innateness. Every normal child laughs and cries, so laughing and crying seem to fit the bill. But the vast majority of human behavior does not.
Frans de Waal's Our Inner Ape is available on Amazon. Well-written, humourous and fully engaging throughout, it offers a fascinating look at human nature.
I hope this has been an interesting read, for all its light and dark.