Bonobo Heart vs. Chimp Brain
Claire - Saturday, December 15, 2012
Bonobos are one of my favourite geek topics. I have read stuff by Franz de Waal, I loved "Bonobo Handshake" by Vanessa Woods and certainly enjoyed their appearance in "Sex at Dawn". They are beautifully fascinating creatures. If you know what a bonobo is, your first thought on reading this title was probably "Oh, the exhibit at the zoo you avoid if you have small children with you." If you have never heard of bonobos, welcome to a new world of understanding your own biology.
Bonobos are the peace, love and mung-beans hippies of the primate world. They are also an extremely close genetic relative to us, actually just as close as chimpanzees. And these 2 cousins of ours are vastly different in the way they structure their societies, how they think and behave and how they solve problems. Humans tend to sit in the middle and swing back and forth between our chimp brains and our bonobo hearts.
In Vanessa Woods book "Bonobo Handshake" there is a perfect example of this with an experiment performed with both species of primate. The set up is like this, an animal is let into a room which is divided by bars. On the other side of the bars out of reach is a plank with food sitting on it. There is a rope threaded through the plank so that the plank can be pulled by the 2 ends of the rope to make the food accessible. The rope is too short to be pulled by an individual animal, but connecting to the room is a cage with a simple lock to allow another animal in.
It didn't take long for either chimps or bonobos to realise they needed 2 of them to work together to be able to pull the rope at the same time to get the food. That is where the similarities ended. When this happened with the chimpanzees, once the food was in reach, the dominant animal would not allow the other one to eat the food. She/he would quickly eat the lot, leaving the other one to go hungry. Once the submissive animal realised there was not going to be food at the end, they just didn't play the game and refused to help. "If I am going hungry, so are you."
The bonobos on the other hand dealt with the situation differently. Firstly after letting the second bonobo in, there would be so touching, stroking, maybe a bit of sex before worrying about the food. Then once they had worked together to be able to get to the food, there was usually a bit more sex and a slow sharing of pieces of fruit, which included more touching, sex and feeding each other. Now it didn't matter if they knew the other animal or not, or if they sat in different places within the hierarchy, the outcome was always the same. Work together, share and most of all enjoy each others company.
The chimpanzee thinking is all about fear. Competitive scarcity, the idea that there is not enough for everyone so we must compete to have enough. In humans this is displayed in so many ways such as business, money and sex and to be honest it actually has no place in reality. Especially sex, (which is often the ultimate reason for wanting money and achievements) in a healthy, caring society, there are no limits on the resource of sex. Chimps need to be big and strong to beat their competitors to have sex with the best partners, so food becomes a limited resource. If you need to eat more than your brother to get bigger then him so you can get the women, it seems scary to have to share. It is all about the individual.
Bonobos don't have the same ideas around food and sex, they are all about their community and they see abundance in everything. There is little competition for sex, so no need to steal the food allotted to another. It is all about "Us".
Coming from the heart is not (necessarily) about being a hyper-sexed bonobo, but about recognising that ego, jealousy and chimp brain are products of fear. Once you remove the fear of missing out and open yourself up to giving, receiving and becoming part of a living breathing organism called community then life becomes much simpler and happier. When our needs and the needs of those around us are met easily and with joy, there is no greed because there is no fear.
I would say get your bonobo heart to tell your chimp brain to STFU, but it probably just needs a hug and some reassuring words that it is OK.