A Science Voice from New Zealand

War – what is it good for? – Part Two

By Bill Morris

A few weeks ago I started writing about warfare and the evolution of primates. In this blog I’d like to continue my musings, this time looking at two of our closest relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos.

Chimpanzee. Image: Wikimedia commons

We’re all familiar with chimps – lovable, tea-drinking, human-like monkey-looking things; intelligent enough to be taught to ride bikes and smoke cigarettes, yet dumb enough to laugh at on TV? Right? But what the heck is a bonobo?
OK let’s just take a step back… Contrary to the image fostered by advertisements for tea bags and Hollywood movies, chimpanzees are actually highly-evolved, intelligent animals that exist in the wilds of Africa within complex social structures. They hunt and kill other animals for meat, engage in inter-troop fighting and often solve disputes with ferocious, sometimes lethal violence. They are one of the most closely-related animals to humans on the planet. We find them fascinating because they are so like us, yet amusing because they are different. It’s somewhat ironic that the word “ape,” when applied to a human being is derogatory and implies stupidity, when in fact apes are only deemed un-intelligent (by un-intelligent humans) because of their similarities to us.


Bonobo. Image: Wikimedia commons

The bonobo is very closely related to the chimpanzee, and perhaps even more closely related to humans than chimps are. Whereas chimps inhabit forests north of the Congo River, bonobos range to the south – it is believed the two species diverged from a common ancestor 2 million years ago after the river split them into two groups. The most striking difference between the species is their wildly variant social lives.

Whereas chimp societies are male-dominated and fraught with violence, bonobo troops exist in apparent peace, using sex rather than aggression to resolve conflicts. In bonobo troops it is the females that exert dominance over males.

Scientists have just recently unlocked the genome for the bonobo, which may reveal more detail about our close relationship with these animals. Interestingly, it has shown that the divergence from chimpanzees has been almost total, which is extremely unusual for neighbouring species. As I reported in a previous blog, even humans and Neanderthals, who shared territory in Europe around 30-60,000 years ago, exchanged genetic material and the signature of that interbreeding can still be found on our genome today. The fact that neither bonobos or chimps can swim meant the Congo river has provided an impenetrable barrier between the two species for over two million years. As one scientist put it – they may as well have been on different planets.

It has been theorized that bonobos exist in a region that is richer in resources than the chimps’ domain. Also, there are no gorillas there, unlike to the north. With less competition for resources in the bonobo territory, there was less need for violence and so peaceful societies evolved. A recent study has even suggested that bonobos “domesticated” themselves, with females preferring less aggressive males to mate with. Just as the violent behaviours associated with the ancestral wolf have been largely bred out of our domesticated dogs, so bonobos have evolved in favour of a peaceful life.

However, while bonobos have often been held up as ambassadors of peace and love; a closer study of the so-called “hippie ape” reveals flaws in this idealistic argument. Just like chimpanzees, bonobos are frequently in conflict, they’ve just evolved different methods of dealing with it. A 2008 study observed bonobos hunting and killing monkeys for food, an activity previously associated with chimps, but not bonobos.

It has been argued that we humans have inherited the “dark” side of the chimp (its violent tendencies) and should rather aspire to the bonobo’s way of life. But let’s analyse that. It is true that violence occurs in our societies and that we fight wars to gain control of resources. And yet most of us rarely encounter violence in our day to day lives. When we do, it is often no more than pushing and shoving, which even bonobos are prone to doing, especially over food. Extreme violence is something we might witness only a few times in our life, if ever. For the most part, we solve our conflicts through peaceful resolution. Given the huge numbers of human beings on the planet, the level of co-operation and peaceful co-existence is nothing short of astonishing.

For most of us, wars happen beyond our immediate experience, conducted by powerful interests operating in a shadowy world we only partially understand.

It could be said that many of the young men and women who fight these wars have little vested emotional interest in the reasons they are fighting, but are simply following orders. Stories of Turkish and Allied soldiers at Gallipoli fraternizing during a ceasefire, before being dragged back to the trenches to continue killing each other, or of German and British troops playing football on Christmas Day during the slaughter on the Western Front, give  a much truer insight into our deeper nature than a simple history of warfare would suggest.

In the depths of our beings, perhaps we are far closer to bonobos than chimps in regard to violence than we realize. Like both bonobos and chimps, we are social animals – creatures that feel more comfortable surrounded by others. This is an evolved tendency that has kept our ancestors alive, from the forest to the savannah to the steppe. When resources are short, we draw together and, if necessary, fight for survival.
Of course, this innate tendency is prone to manipulation by the leaders of society, who wage wars for resources in distant lands. So if we need to question why wars are fought, perhaps it’s there we need to look, rather than to our “inner ape,” for answers.

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