At a recent informal meeting of New York City sex therapists to discuss his new book Sex at Dawn, psychologist Chris Ryan played us a videotape showing a bonobo orgy.
The tape was several minutes long. It showed a small crew of cute little apes cavorting in the grass in all possible heterosexual and homosexual variations. He explained that this was a bonobo “quickie.” There didn’t seem to be a lot of orgasms. Each encounter was just a few quick strokes, then on to the next partner.
Ryan explained that the group sex we’d just been watching had been prompted by someone throwing some apples into the midst of the group.
The part about the apples didn’t make any sense, until he explained to us more about bonobo society.
Bonobos like apples. They like them a lot. As a matter of fact, it’s difficult to do bonobo research without a supply of green apples to motivate them to do the experiments.
But they like group harmony most of all. And the sudden appearance of the apples in their midst immediately raises the threat of discord. Who will get to eat the apples?
If these were chimpanzees, the strongest males would immediately claim the fruit. There would be a fair amount of shoving, and possibly some bloodshed.
But bonobos are so communal that the tension produced by something so precious as an apple in their midst must be dispelled by a gesture of community. In this case, everyone gets to cool off with a little sexual comfort from their neighbor. Then, self-interest replaced by a certain yummy group feeling, they settle down to share the apple.
In the remarkable new book, Bonobo Handshake, author Vanessa Woods tells the story of her life in the Congo with bonobos at the Lola Ya Bonobo sanctuary. It was Woods who made the video that Chris Ryan showed us in New York. I read the book to understand more about bonobos and sexuality, but came away having learned a lot about many other things as well.
Bonobos, I learned, live exclusively in the Congo. It is extremely paradoxical that such a peaceful creature should have its natural habitat within such a bloody country.
You remember how much bonobos like apples?
The Congo is Africa’s equivalent of an apple. It contains a dazzling wealth of minerals — gold, diamonds, and very rare but very valuable metals such as tantalum that are required for things like cellphones.
Unfortunately for the Congo and its people, we modern humans tend to act more like chimpanzees than bonobos when we stumble upon attractive fruit. As a result, the Congo has been the object of the world’s greed for centuries. Since Joseph Conrad’s time, its land and people have been ravaged by near-continuous war, and by atrocities that are horrifying even by African standards.
For bonobos, the most peaceful of intelligent apes, to inhabit one of the places on earth most likely to make humans behave like chimpanzees — this might be someone’s idea of a sick joke. If it hadn’t actually happened that way. But that’s how things turned out.
Bonobo Handshake manages to weave the story of the Congo, and that of its bonobos, into one intricate narrative — a narrative that is all the more remarkable in that it also tells many other stories as well. Stories of primate research, of economics, and of the romantic partnership between Woods and her primatologist husband. This inter-weaving of many different story lines is all accomplished in between accounts of bonobo sex and horrible human violence. I would have enjoyed more of the former and less of the latter, but I respect Woods’ need to tell the story her own way.
Most of the many stories that the book weaves together take place at the Lola Ya Bonobo Sanctuary, a bonobo preserve near Kinshasa, where Woods and her husband studied bonobos for several years. Before Bonobo Handshake, I had not known that all such preserves are esentially orphanages. They exist to save young animals whose parents have been killed — usually for meat by starving Africans.
Bonobo Handshake, which more than most books must be read to be fully appreciated, introduces us to a unique band of individual bonobos – their names, personalities, and stories. Almost every one of them was rescued as a youngster after having lost both parents and witnessed his/her entire community slaughtered.
As the little furry creatures enjoy leisurely afternoons of 3-hour lunches followed by delicious lovemaking (yes, these are same the bonobos that starred in the video), it is difficult to keep in mind that they are all war orphans grown up. As a physician, I was amazed that such terrible psychic wounds could heal so well. Human children don’t usually heal so well after such experiences.
But bonobo DNA, though similar to human DNA, is different in important ways. The balance between self-interest and community-interest is different. And bonobo sexuality is certainly different from human sexuality – at least as we see it today.
If only humans might be genetically modified by the addition of some of that good bonobo DNA, then the discovery of a new diamond field in the Congo might prompt an orgy rather than a war. That would be better, wouldn’t it?
Hey, call me a dreamer. But I was grateful for having read Bonobo Handshake, in ways I didn’t expect when I picked it up.
In future blogs, I’ll take some of its ideas further, and see where they might lead. I hope you’ll come along.