By Carol S. Pearson.
I’ve been lucky in love, but even in the best romances there can be challenging moments. My husband is tall, handsome in a distinguished way, actively supportive of my work, a loving partner, and a national champion in his age group in track and field masters competitions. To prepare for this, he lifts weights, so he is built. Most of the time I love those muscles, but this summer, in a very stressful moment, he lifted himself up to his full imposing height, glared at me angrily, and declared in response to something I’d suggested, “We are not going to do that!” I walked away a bit cowed and resentful, reaffirming to myself how right I had been.
What was going on, I wondered? It felt like he was an alpha male primate exerting dominance and I, a female primate, giving off signals of subservience to avoid a fight. But then I remembered that alpha male behavior is not characteristic of all primates. David Quammen notes in “The Left Bank Ape” (National Geographic, March 2013) that Richard Wrangham, a distinguished biological anthropologist and a professor in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard, has hypothesized that humans may have evolved from the common ape ancestor of a long line of peace-loving, sex-happy, female-dominant bonobos and of the more violent, hierarchical, warlike, male-dominant chimpanzees, who at some point in evolution split off from one another.
It seems as if now is the right time for us to learn about the bonobos, who are the subject of a current movie (Bonobos: Back to the Wild) and who are an endangered species, existing only in the Democratic Republic of Congo. These fun-loving apes appear, on the face of it, to be biologically more like people, since we share an ability to be sexual even when a female isn’t fertile. However, for much of human history, people have been more like chimps—warlike and patriarchal in our social structures.
If Wrangham is right, each of us has access to both chimp and bonobo characteristics. I wonder, then, whether male socialization, either strongly or weakly, encourages development of human chimp qualities, and if female socialization, with an equal level of variability, encourages bonobo characteristics. Could stress deepen this divide, so that even those of us who would not choose to let our primate behavior take us over occasionally do so? After all, most of our DNA and much of our brain’s elements are shared with both of these species.
Of course, humans are not chimps or bonobos, so the signs of their influence on us need to be decoded for us to be able to recognize their evolved expressions. We do not usually swing from trees or pick bugs from one another’s hair and eat them. Yet, in some organizations, whatever surface commitment there might be to a stated mission and values, and however much gender and other forms of diversity are lauded, the unwritten rules appear to be similar to those in the world of chimps. An alpha male is in charge, doling out resources. Others get their status from where they are in his favor, reflected in job titles and pay, and thus they remain loyal to him, often even if he is taking the organization over the cliff—that is, until a challenger deposes him.
In times and places where patriarchy has been, or is, the preferred social and family structure, men similarly are assumed to be in charge in the family, and in government, as well. Moreover, even though most of us no longer solve conflict through duels or with our fists, the language we use in business competition still can be violent in the extreme (get out the heavy artillery, kill the competition, etc.) and physical abuse within families remains widespread.
You may or may not know that bonobos are thought to be matriarchal and more community-oriented than hierarchical. They rarely are violent, employing a wide variety of comforting hugs and caresses as well as creative sensual and sexual modes to make one another feel safe and good in order to keep everyone happy and to defuse conflict. Virtually any bonobo can be sexual with any other and at virtually any time, except with their mothers.
Similarly, women and some men today are encouraged to keep the peace and make sure everyone is happy through their communication—speaking in ways that encourage bonding, maintaining high morale by helping others to feel good about themselves, and engendering peer collaborative behaviors. A value often cited of female leadership, and one frequently expected of women, is the ability to motivate good collaboration and team spirit, where people believe that they matter—a more bonobo than chimp leadership style. In addition, women more than men are expected to look sexually attractive (check out the male and female news anchors).
However, as women leaders approach the glass ceiling, they are expected to do all this while also being as tough as any chimp-like guy. In truth, it is possible for women—and desirable for men—to achieve such a balance, since the competing instinctual behaviors create an inner tension that invites critical and creative thinking, because neither can take one over completely.
Historically, religions have struggled to curtail the chimp’s violence and the bonobo’s lustiness in humans, with mixed success. Although our stated beliefs come from our rational minds, what if, under stress, we revert to primate behaviors? Cultivating the human ability to laugh at our own and other people’s foibles by recognizing the chimp or bonobo reflected in our behaviors can help us regain our capacities for rational thought and self-management, thus preventing much violence and sexual license.
Our ability to lighten up also supports success in the current social experiment of trying out gender equality and true male/female partnership without being primly politically correct about it. We can stop to laugh at ourselves. As women, we can remember in our personal and work relationships that the fact that we see a man sometimes getting sucked into an alpha male complex does not necessarily mean that he is truly misogynistic. Men can remember that if they see a woman wearing too short a dress or a plunging neckline to work, it does not necessarily mean that she wants to be treated as a sex object.
It’s also possible that the behaviors of chimps and bonobos may explain why our politics sometimes feels like a visit to the zoo, with some of the more chimp-like Republicans and bonobo-like Democrats locked in the cages of their dogmatic ideologies. Instead of turning off and letting others make decisions for us, we can help free them by supporting those on either side who are demonstrating the human capacity to track data, think critically, and construct solid, compassionate, and innovative plans to deal with the great problems before us. When we do that, we reinforce the qualities that allow us to realize our potential as human beings.