Mercury Rising 鳯女

Politics, life, and other things that matter

Humans, Bonobos, And Egalitarianism

Posted by Phoenix Woman on July 3, 2013

Alternet recently published an interview with Christopher Ryan, author of Sex at Dawn, a book exploring the evolution of human sexuality and human society.

During the interview, the following passages struck me as interesting:

McNally: And immediate-return-hunter-gatherer societies were the norm pre-agriculture?

Ryan:That’s the way animals live, and we are animals. Our ancestors were moving around from one source of food to another. When they’d overhunted the rabbits in one area, for example, they just moved down to the beach. Research has shown that 70,000 years ago there were about 3,000 breeding human beings on the planet. The world was a pretty empty place.

McNally: How big were the groups they were living in?

Ryan:They generally didn’t get beyond 150 people. This is based on research by Robin Dunbar, and 150 is called Dunbar’s Number in honor of his research. That’s about the number of people that any one of us can keep track of.

McNally:Trust was based on the fact that there were no strangers.

Ryan:You knew everyone personally. When you get above 150, people start to become abstractions, and that changes our behavior toward one another. If your wallet’s on the table, I would never think of taking money out of it, right? But if you’re some nameless, faceless corporation and you undercharge me on a bill, maybe I won’t point it out to you. This is very important when you consider not just sexual issues but political issues; economic issues; questions of warfare; violence, all these sort of questions about human nature.

McNally: In these immediate-return-hunter-gatherer societies, no one was a stranger, and life was egalitarian?

Ryan:Pretty much every anthropologist who’s studied these people would concur with that. Because people are so interdependent, the worst thing that could happen is for schisms to develop within the group. And the best way to develop schisms is to have differences in power, in autonomy, in resources and so on.

The standard narrative posits that a guy goes out, kills a deer, comes back and says, “Okay I’m going to share this meat with my woman and our children. Sorry, rest of you, too bad.”

McNally: “Good luck hunting.”

Ryan:“Go get your own.” This presumes a sort of nuclear family prehistoric suburbia, with people living independently in their little houses. That’s not the way these people live. In fact, if you kill a deer, you may not even bring it back because there are so many rituals involved in making sure nobody gets proud. You might leave it outside the village and mention to someone else that it’s there. Men will exchange arrows so you can’t identify whose arrow killed a particular animal. There are all sorts of things built in to many of these societies that show how consciously they were avoiding the sorts of status accumulation that the standard narrative assumes and depends on.


McNally: Why do you say we’re more similar to bonobos [than chimps]?

Ryan: Our sexual behavior is extremely similar.

A female chimp will never let another female chimp, much less a male chimp, hold her baby. Bonobos, shortly after giving birth, rejoin the group and let other bonobos hold their baby. We human beings give our babies to strangers in the grocery store.

Bonobos are the only other mammal that has sex face to face. They look in each others’ eyes, they kiss, they kiss each others’ hands, they hold hands. They have lots of same sex interactions, they practice, in fact, every possible combination other than mother-son.

Bonobos are also very susceptible to stress. During WWII, there were some bonobos and chimps in two separate enclosures near Dresden, Germany. The bombing didn’t hit the zoo, but there was a lot of noise and chaos. All the bonobos died, and none of the chimps did.

McNally: Different vulnerability to trauma…what does this mean for modern relationships?

Ryan: Different things to different people.

Of course, the human branches of the primate tree had split off well before the bonobos and chimpanzees became separate species of the Pan genus, so it’s not as if we humans got our traits from bonobos or chimps. However, I reckon all three species likely got the potential for these traits from a shared ancestor about ten or so million years ago.


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