Bonobos (Pan paniscus)
bonobo, once misleadingly called the pygmy chimpanzee is as closely related
to humans as any other animal species on earth. Genetically bonobos are
most closely related to chimpanzees, but this pair of species are our
closest relatives. They are both more closely related to us than they are
to gorillas. Thus they are both extremely important as science attempts
to work out the story of human evolution and to think through various theories
of human nature.
Bonobos have some similarities to humans that other apes do not
have, and thus they are especially important as research material and
as models in scientific analysis. Some of the similarites are anatomical.
These have to do with the shape of the skull, certain cells in the brain,
the teeth, and the proportions of the body. Other similarities are biochemical,
and of course genetic. It has been difficult from the beginning to ignore
the fact that bonobos will stand and walk on two feet quite a bit, as illustrated
in my photo to the right.
In some ways the most interesting unique similarities between bonobos
and humans are behavioral, because humans are intensely interested in
the nature and origins of their own minds and behaviors. Bonobos may help
us to understand sexual and gender variety in humans. As with humans, bonobo
sex is not restricted to reproduction. They will excite each other sexually
several times a day in nature or captivity. This is most often not simply
to mate or breed. That is, they do not necessarily simply copulate, and
even copulation is not restricted to when females are ovulating. In this
sense, females do not come into heat like most other non-human mammals do.
Bonobo sex can be "erotic" and they are sometimes called "the Kama Sutra
Ape." And obviously all this sex is not simply for courtship.Females and
females commonly will stimulate each other. Males and males will stimulate
each other. Males and females will stimulate each other even when the females
cannot possibly get pregnant. Sex has a lot to do with bonding and keeping
peace in their societies.
Bonobos also seem to be especially "intelligent." Intelligence is
of course difficult to define and measure even in humans, but at least
we can say that bonobos seem to have minds that are especially interesting
zoologically because when we watch and study them "something" seems to
be going on that looks more human than even in the other apes. It is extremely
important for understanding the origins of the human mind that this research
into the mental characteristics of bonobos and other apres continues and
One can argue that the bonobo is the most scientifically valuable
animal on earth. But tragically it is on the brink of extinction.
It was the last of the apes to be identified (discovered) by scientists,
only in the late 1920s, and only on the basis of bones in a museum cabinet.
It was the last of the apes to be located in nature, in the 1970s, so that
studies could begin on natural populations. Tragically, now that we are
at last beginning to understand how very unique and extremely important this
cousin is, we may be about to lose it. It was always the rarest of the great
apes, and now it may well be the most in danger of extinction in the wild.
There are possibly only between 100 and 200 in all of captivity, and that
may not be enough to preserve the species against inbreeding depression in
the long run. So time is running out.
Bonobos are found naturally only in the Congo (formerly Zaire,
and briefly Democratic Republic of the Congo, once the Belgian Congo, and
NOT simply "Congo"), a vast county rich in minerals and other natural
resources. Despite these riches local people were kept very poor for decades
by corrupt govenments and powerful economic interests. Local poverty has
always complicated the problem of conserving bonobos. People will eat bonobos,
and more recently they began also to sell them for "bushmeat." Lumber
companies built roads deep into forests and this made the bushmeat trade
possible. The bosses also would encourage their employees to supplement
their wages, rather than pay them more, by hunting and shipping the dried
meat of various species of forest animals, many rare. These policies opened
the export markets for the meat. There have been important efforts to control
bushmeat traffic but it remains a battle.
In 1997 or 1998 a ruthlessly bloody civil war
began in Zaire. It is called a civil war, but it involves many foreign nations
and powerful international interests who profit from illegal trade in diamonds, coltan, gold
and other materials, and also from arms sales.
Congo moreover is located strategially in the center of Africa. So war
is likely to go on. Three million people had been killed and millions
more displaced as of early 2005. Yet brave and determined people are working
hard to try to save what bonobos they can under extremely difficult conditions.
They deserve medals. I have included a few links as a start to your learning
about the conservation efforts. The situation is and will be very fluid, as
one might imagine. So be prepared to google if you want to learn details.
Even back when the country was falling apart but US/European-supported Mobutu
Sese Seko still nominally was dictator, on April 14, 1997 The Wall Street Journal's Robert
Block wrote a prophetic article headlined: "As Zaire's War Wages, Foreign
Businesses Scramble for Inroads. Mining Firms Want a Piece of Vast Mineral
Wealth; Diamonds Are Up For Bid. 'Logical Risk' in a 'New Era.' The article
described how in the midst of chaos Zaire was "wide open for business" and
"planeloads of foreigners" were landing to make sure they had good relationships
with rebels and to make new deals. At that time millions of dollars were already
being invested in mining and other facilities, indicating clearly that these
companies were digging in for the long haul. Of course eventually other political
and economic players across Africa and elsewhere wanted and got a piece of
the action. Corporate and external money and so on have gone into financing
the killing, and of course the arms industry became a special interest in
the violence.There can be a lot of big money to be made in and even
from chaos, no matter how disgustingly bloody it might seem to most observers.
This fact of war profiteering is hardly new in human history. In the
Congo there are not forces in play to significantly counter within the foreseeable
future the interests that perpetuate the bloodshed. Thus despite occasional
"hopeful peace negotations" the socioeconomic structure is likely to resist
The established conservation organizations have not been well organized
to come to the aid of this species in Africa, especially under these enormously
difficult and extremely dangerous conditions. Some players are better informed
and positioned and more effective than others. It is simply remarkable
that some very good bonobo preservation work by tactful, clever, and brave
people has in fact been done! But some claim to be helping bonobos while
in fact they give priority to other species. So if you are thinking
of contributing, do some very careful research first! The biggest and best
known organisations may not be the best for this particular species. And
some of the smaller ones may have problems as well. Yet help is urgently needed, and some
good is actually being done under these extremely difficult conditions. (July
Book Manuscripts in Progress
Who am I in all of this? I have written two book manuscripts on
our close cousins the bonobos, a highly endangered species,
and hope to talk with publishers when I get more time! Unfortunately,
I have been juggling other important projects as well and also need time
to polish some of the illustrations, and the introductory text for the
one that is virtually finished. Meanwhile,
I would like to hear from other students of bonobos who want to swap
talk, or to take some action to try to save this important species from
The first book manuscript is essentially
complete except for the illustrations, and a rewriting of the Preface.
It begins with a review and synthesis of the discoveries of the behavior
and ecology of bonobos. This first half also goes beyond mere review
and develops several perspectives that have not been considered in the
primary literature or in the three available and excellent books, Bonobo
by Frans DeWaal and Frans Lanting, Kanzi
by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, The Pygmy Chimpanzee by Randall Susman,
Last Ape by T. Kano.
The last half of my first book analyses the scientific controversies
over the 'status' of bonobos and the implications of bonobos for science's
understanding of human evolution, and places the bonobo controversies
in the context of the history and sociology of science.
The second book manuscript is not so far along. It explores the
implications of discoveries about bonobos for important long-standing
and intellectually 'deep' issues in cultural anthropology, psychiatry,
scientific epistemology, and theology.
I wear several hats in my professional life
because I have gone out of my way even starting in college
to study to be, and to remain, a broad biologist rather than a specialist,
which has become the more conventional track. I am a professor in a Department
of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior and I have made research contributions
in all these fields over the decades.
When I watch bonobos it helps that I spent five years in the interdisciplinary
training programs of the Brain Research Institute at UCLA and UCSD and
that I have conducted behavioral research since. It helps that I
have made contributions to evolutionary biology that have involved analyses
of bones and muscles as well as of molecules and ecology. I am also on the
Graduate Faculty of the Graduate Program in Conservation Biology. I have
long taught a course about the history and functions of "myths" or half-truths
about nature (including human nature) in the Department of Cultural Studies
and Comparative Literature, and I have been closely involved with Minnesota's
Program in the History and Philosophy of Science.
It also is relevant that I have actually conducted original research
in the history and philosophy of science, and given serious attention
to the human mind and the human condition, as evident in my book The
Anatomy of Judgment and other publications. Thus I come to bonobos
with multiple perspectives. And this is very different from the scientists
who have approached them from individual disciplinary backgrounds and perspectives
such as paleoanthropology, physical anthropology, primatology, psychology,
or ecology.Bonobos have been difficult for the scientific community to
deal with. In a sense they are too much like humans in too many ways,
and yet they are obviously even closer to chimpanzees. So specialists too
often ended up arguing over the meaning of what can sometimes be small
differences between bonobos, chimps, and humans. And in the back of their
minds too many specialists have been concerned how the outcome might influence
the theories about human evolution and human nature that they have been
trained to defend. So there is still a great deal left for science to sort,
out even from all of the information that we have learned already.
review in Quarterly Review of Biology of Demonic Males
by Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson. My QRB review includes
a criticism of, among other things, Wrangham and Peterson's misguided
effort to reconcile bonobo biology with the authors' evolutionary
story line about the genetic reasons for human wars and crimes of violence.
Males is a lot of fun to read, in any event, if you do not
take the science as gospel. It is mostly about chimpanzees and tries
to make the case that male humans are more or less hard-wired to be
nasty because of our evolutionary history, for which, the authors claim
chimps are the right model. This is a great oversimplification of what is
in fact a very old idea. The book is aimed to be an attack on the anthropologists
who stress the role of culture in making some societies war-like and others
more peaceful. Because the argument is based on using chimpanzees as
the model for the evolution of human nature, Bonobos have to be
explained away as an irrelevant "side branch" -- even though both species
are equally close to us in their genetics, and neither one is our direct
ancestor! This does not make much sense as a way of dealing with all the
empirical evidence that we are lucky enough to have from these two species
and the other apes.
Links! Pan paniscus
Old set of links. Bonobo
links was my older (1996) first effort to list webpages about bonobos.
The search engines still come up with it, so I will let you know what you
missed even though it is no longer active. Next is that 1996 list of
links, copied to this newer 2005 page for your convenience, and with comments
added! Then the newest links follow below this older list.
engines will in any event dig up a great many newer entries about bonobos.
See below for some that I turned up that looked interesting. (However, search engines such as Alta Vista or Yahoo! will
also list far too many duplicates and just plain commercial junk, using
tricks to get multiple hits and make sales! AV was once my favorite, but
it just seems to get worse and worse in this respect. I have switched to
using mostly www.google.com recently, which
at present works in a way that is more respectful of its users than do
some of the others.)
- Bonobo Sex and Society:
1995 This Scientific American article by DeWaal has gotten onto multiple
websites. I tried this site recently and it has become one of those
that won't let me out once I get in. Maybe you will be able to escape
this trap with your own particular computer and software. Good luck. But
google, this article has been reproduced many times on websites.
- Pygmy Chimps at Bonobo
Road: This begins with the San Diego Zoo's general entry page.
- Pan Africa News Vol.
2, #2: Discusses economic difficulties in Zaire and the disappearing
taboo against hunting bonobos in the Wamba area
- Chimp Talk
Debate: Is It Really Language?: New York Times article.
Updated Links ................
**** Apenheul Primate
Park in the Netherlands is another great wildlife park in Europe to
watch bonobos and other apes and monkeys. They did not have a research facility
last time I was there. But it is a delightful place where you can walk among
many species of free-living monkeys. The apes, in contrast to the monkeys,
are enclosed by moats and can roam around in very nice enclosures. There
are a few photos on this website.
Bonobo Page (Prof. WH Calvin) This is a very nice site. Professor,
University of Washington. Among other things the major zoos and
wildlife Parks with bonobos are listed and discussed.
**** Try Bushmeat Project especially
for conservation related information and links, more than basic biological
information on bonobos.
**** Great Apes Trust http://greatapetrust.org/ New facility
in Iowa, for apes that have been research subjects for years, such as
the famous Kanzi. Many of the apes have been moved from the old Yerkes Primate
Center in Georgia to these housing and study quarters that are much better
suited for behavioral studies.They have built a very nice website with several
video clips including footage of bonobos being introduced to this remarkable
new facility, which is dedicated largely to the study of language and the
mind in the great apes.
**** Dr. Jo Thompson's
former webpage on her fascinating project at the Lukuru Wildlife Research Foundation
discusses a very important new field study on bonobos
that she discovered in new type of habitat for this highly intelligent
species. It is a sort of mosaic of savannah and forest that recalls the
sort of habitat that many scientists have long speculated was important
for human evolution. Whether or not this was actually the sort of habitat
that we evolved in, it will be very important to learn how
bonobos adapt their "talents" to living in this demanding sort of landscape.
Jo has been a dynamic driving force to preserve this unique population
of bonobos -- she is a phenomenon! Get to know her. At the moment her
website is being rebuilt and relocated. So try googling for "Lukuru"
if this link is no longer active. She has close ties to the Columbus
Zoo. So also see their website. If you google, you will also learn that
Jo was deservedly honored as an Associate
Rolex Laureate for her important work.
Wildlife Park, Belgium. If you are visiting Belgium the Plankendael
Wildlife Park is one of the best places anywhere to watch bonobos. They
also have a scientific research facility built right into their
bonobo enclosure. The scientists are connected to the university at Antwerp.
There is now a webcam!
The Critter WebCam Links also has links to other primate and other mammal
When I checked on March 18, 2005 the Planchkendael cam itself was blank
(but there were some photos there to see.) and the message for Bonobo
Island said "De webcam staat 24 op 24 uren online! Enkel tijdens onderhoudswerken
kan deze camera tijdelijk uitgeschakeld worden.Momenteel is bonobo Hortense
zwanger en hebben we de camera verplaatst naar de binnenruimte. Zo kunnen
onze wetenschappers haar dag en nacht nauwkeurig volgen." As near
as I can tell, this means that the webcam is 24 hours online. but the
camera can be eliminated during maintaintenance work temporarily. Currently
bonobo Hortense is pregnant and we moved the camera to the working space
so our scientists can follow her precisely day and night.
Interview. This is an interesting interview with Wisconsin psychiatrist
Dr. Harry Prosen who has been treating depressed and othewise disturbed apes
in zoos. His first patient was a bonobo, and it is a fascinating story. The
audio file is longer than the transcript. Dr. Posner expresses his opinion
that empathy is more pronounced in bonobos even than in humans. Among the
non-human apes bonobos would be tops, then orangs, then chimps.
**** Primate Info Nework
is a good general gateway to primate information.
Foundation This site includes a 20 minute film about a wonderful
project in Kinshasa to save orphaned bonobos that come into town to
be sold as meat, pets, or used in medical research. Click through to
Lola ya Bonobo Project and find film. Also, the WWF has a nice webpage
and it is worth looking at their other projects and publications.
home page for some of my own photos of bonobos, and notes
on them in a pop-up. I am no longer active in Censhare. Too busy. ]
Below are bonobo
that I have not checked out extensively.
Block Bonobo Foundation Photo. "A beautiful female Bonobo, posing for our
camera. Female using a ball as a sex toy.
Going "Downtown." The Bonobo Way Peace Through Pleasure" http://drsusanblock.com/bonobo.htm
The Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI) calls itself a non-profit (USA: 501-c3) organization based
in Washington, D.C. I know nothing about their effectiveness.
Bonobo Newsletter, Columbus Zoo http://www.colszoo.org/bonobonewsletter/
This zoo has a good bonobo exhibit, offers good care for them, and also
has been supportive of bonobo conservation.
Bonobo Protection Fund. "The BPF is a group of international
scientists and laypersons who are concerned with the future of one
of mankind's closest living relatives, the Bonobo." http://drake.marin.k12.ca.us/stuwork/seadisc/endgspecies/bonobo/page%202.html
Bonobo Sex and Society by Frans B. M. de Waal and Frans Lanting Beautiful
Photographs! Engaging annecdotes. Nice review of behavioral studies. http://songweaver.com/info/bonobos.html
Language Research Center The LRC is a world
renowned primate research facility in Atlanta, Georgia associated
with Georgia State University specializing in language research with
an emphasis on work with bonobos (Pan paniscus) and chimpanzees. Photos
and biographies of most all bonobos at the LRC. http://www.gsu.edu/~wwwlrc/
Primatology Department at Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary
Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany -- a center for primate studies
that includes research on bonobos. http://www.eva.mpg.de/primat/
See also exhibit at local wildlife park, associated with Institute. www.zoolex.org/
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