Doing the hoka-hoka

Good Natured - Bonobo
June 13, 1997

Is morality uniquely human? In Good Natured, Frans de Waal considers whether those selfish genes of other primates, recent cousins of our own, also conspire to bring about this strange adaptation, if adaptation it is.

Seemingly the most prolific primatologist of this decade, de Waal brings to bear his persuasive mix of anecdote, anthropomorphism and common sense to argue that moral decisions are made and moral laws enforced well beyond the human case. His argument goes like this. Morals are about relationships, about the way we treat each other. Morality only serves a function (and it is assumed throughout that it does serve a function) if relationships matter. In the complex, capricious, and Machiavellian life of a primate group, relationships matter a great deal since they determine who will get access to food and mates and grooming and protection. Conclusion: such primates may (not must) adjust their behaviour according to an internalised "moral" code.

What is de Waal's evidence? Enter "reconciliation", "consolation", "celebrations" and "community concern": four unabashedly anthropomorphic descriptions of primate behaviours. More objectively these constitute a tendency for recent antagonists to approach and groom each other; a tendency for third parties to do likewise with victims of aggression; heightened rates of affiliation in the group at large when the above occur; and peaceful intervention in disputes for no immediate benefit to the intervenor. Because relationships matter to them, primates try to mend them when they go awry, hence reconciliation. One rung up the moral ladder, a strong relationship built on the recognition of mutual needs can only flower with empathy, a capacity de Waal attributes to chimpanzees but not monkeys. In so far as they are restricted to one-to-one relationships, moral codes of this sort remain firmly in the arena of genetic self-interest as qualified by reciprocal altruism. But with his chimpanzees' "community concerns" and "celebrations", de Waal tries to show that individuals act on behalf of the group as a whole and only indirectly in their own interests. This looks more like morality as we usually understand it applied to humans.

Good Natured, whatever its author would have us believe, is more a book of ideas than of empirical substance. De Waal, by confining himself to captive studies has watched an enormous number of individuals grow up and learn the rules of the social game and so anecdote follows anecdote, each rich, each adduced to the author's theory. But 100 anecdotes do not increase one-hundred-fold the weight of one anecdote because they cannot be trusted. Important experiments can be subjected to intense criticism with method and analysis picked through minutely and replication attempted. Anecdotes cannot be submitted to such checks. It is not that the information in experiments is somehow more meaningful (usually it is less so). Anecdotes would tell us a lot if we could be sure they were an accurate representation, but that is exactly what cannot be established. They are a powerful source of information, but equally of misinformation and not a reliable foundation for a theory.

As such, the experiments that de Waal reports, admittedly inspired by these anecdotes, stand out impressively. Particularly interesting is his demonstration of moral socialisation. De Waal transferred members of a rhesus macaque group, widely recognised as one of the most vindictive primate species alive, into a group of their closely related but more pacific cousin species, stump-tail macaques. The immigrants quickly adjusted their behaviour, fighting less and reconciling more readily. Macaques, it seems, are not bound by genetic determinism but form social norms that then determine the behaviour of those exposed to them. Does this sound so different from ourselves?

This is fine, since there was something in it for the macaques. But what of the chimpanzees' community concern - their supposed acting for the good of the group and resulting candidature for membership of the moral community? My second criticism of Good Natured is that de Waal, having built his theory's credibility on the adaptiveness of morals, then fails to grasp the nettle of that most heinous of fallacies: group selectionism. If community concern is adaptive it can only be so by group selectionist means, yet de Waal declines to assert this. Although a glaring omission, this is understandable given the overkill that group selectionist musings usually incur. I would be happy to believe that in some circumstances an individual, chimp or human, cannot do better for itself than to promote the social health of its group. However, I would like de Waal to demonstrate this by an explicit consideration of alternative selfish strategies.

As a book of ideas, though, this is excellent and on the whole I am inclined to believe de Waal's case for the antecedents of our own morality in other species. Perhaps most interestingly, however, is that the domain hitherto of philosophers is now being contested by evolutionary biologists. Not only does this tighten up the terms of the debate (as did ape language research for linguistics), but ironically it injects a special kind of humanism that recognises the origins of our moral failings as well as our successes. For de Waal, morality is the oil that preserves the cogs of sociality -it benefits everyone and arises spontaneously when social factors are so disposed and disappears when they are not.

This is a far cry from Immanuel Kant's "universal account" in which morality is a matter of subordinating self-interest to duty. This is a theory of morals that can only bootstrap itself into validity, since who will determine what determines "duty" if no one's self (kin, group, genetic) interest is involved? Furthermore, I cannot see why a moral theory born of a socially stratified and Christian 18th-century Europe deserves to be deemed more universal than one inspired by the full gamut of actual human and animal behaviour.

Whilst nonhuman primates may be adept at quickly resolving political confrontations, we humans have often been less successful. Even though the few remaining populations of wild bonobos can hardly be aware that they are citizens of the new Democratic Republic of Congo, they can hardly have been unaware of the consequences of the anarchy that preceded this transformation. In the former Zaire, as elsewhere, the large-scale movement and dispossession of humans has led to opportunistic tree cutting and hunting and, unfortunately for the bonobo, the erosion of a taboo preventing the killing of these animals. Humans now outnumber bonobos in the heart of the bonobo's range.

Both visually and verbally, Bonobo is a work of great clarity, offered up by the double Dutch combination of Frans de Waal and his compatriot and sometime National Geographic photographer, Frans Lanting. Black- on-green has never looked so sumptuous as in Lanting's choice shots of bonobos in the rainforest: the last thing you would want to do with this coffee table book is spill coffee on it.

The text, supplied by de Waal, belies the coffee-table look however, for while once again short on figures, it is big on ideas. Such a description applies equally well to the study of human evolution, and the bonobo, rudely thrust onto this stage as a putative model of the Last Common Ancestor of humans, chimpanzees and bonobos is now expected to comment uniquely on our origins. De Waal soundly observes that if we had known about this female-bonded, peaceful and almost exclusively vegetarian relative as early as we had known about its more robust relative the common chimpanzee, theories of human evolution, traditionally focused on male hunting and aggressivity, might have evolved differently. Actually, the bonobo is likely to be rather derived and novel with respect to our shared ancestor. Might it therefore be unavailable for comment? Perhaps the most telling discovery is that of the considerable differences between bonobo and chimpanzee, only one million years separated, that hint at great behavioural plasticity in the evolution of the whole human/bonobo/chimp family.

What explains the bonobo? THV does a pretty good job if we are to believe recent theories. If THV sounds like a vegan meat substitute then that is because it is. "Terrestrial herbaceous vegetation" is the soft pith inside cane-like herbs which bonobos can eat but from which chimps, across the great Zaire River, have been evolutionarily excluded by co-resident gorillas. THV removes the need to hunt and also permits relatively large groups of bonobos to form in stable groups. This in turn is proposed as the means by which females can associate, form alliances and ultimately dominate males.

Female-female affiliation does not limit itself to grooming however. As important an activity is "hoka-hoka", bonobo lesbian sex in which each female rubs her clitoris against the other's (at 2.2 moves per second, one of this book's few snippets of hard-hitting data informs us). Males are not losing out - they rub their scrota together and, indeed, couplings between nearly all permutations of sex and age are possible. Where rhesus macaque society treads a fine line between tolerance and violence, bonobo society is in constant danger of degenerating into sex. Sex can break out at the least provocation. But the common theme de Waal sees running through this apparent salaciousness is the resolution of tension. Tension experienced by immigrant females is resolved by hoka-hoka, tension between males over the distribution of food is similarly resolved - indeed they get erections as soon as the food appears. We cannot yet be sure how important the sexualisation of bonobos has been in their evolution, though de Waal argues for it being a primary adaptation. But it appears to have been important enough to effect morphological changes: the bonobo clitoris is much enlarged compared with the chimpanzee and markedly shifted ventrally, thus facilitating hoka-hoka.

The bonobo in sum is a curious creature. Whether its quizzical relationship to ourselves will in any way promote its survival remains to be seen. It is endemic to a single country of the world where, in a bitter irony, poverty is so desperate that the humans living alongside these supposed protohumans are now oft-times reduced to making fire by rubbing sticks. Villagers do not wish to kill an animal they see as their relative, but how they treat the bonobo will ultimately depend on how their new government and the world at large treats them.

Thomas Sambrook is research associate, department of anthropology, University of Durham.

Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals

Author - Frans de Waal
ISBN - 0 674 35660 8
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £16.50
Pages - 296

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