At a juncture in history during which women are seeking equality with men, science arrives with a belated gift to the feminist movement. Male-biased evolutionary scenarios — Man the Hunter, Man the Toolmaker and so on — are being challenged by the discovery that females play a central, perhaps even dominant, role in the social life of one of our nearest relatives. In the past few years many strands of knowledge have come together concerning a relatively unknown ape with an unorthodox repertoire of behaviour: the Bonobo.
The species is best characterized as female-centred and egalitarian and as one that substitutes sex for aggression. Whereas in most other species sexual behaviour is a fairly distinct category, in the Bonobo it is part and parcel of social relations — and not just between males and females. Bonobos engage in sex in virtually every partner combination (although such contact among close family members may be suppressed). And sexual interactions occur more often among Bonobos than among other primates. Despite the frequency of sex, the Bonobo’s rate of reproduction in the wild is about the same as that of the chimpanzee. A female gives birth to a single infant at intervals of between five and six years. So Bonobos share at least one very important characteristic with our own species, namely, a partial separation between sex and reproduction.
Lest this all sound like a non-stop Caligulean orgy, Dr Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University in Atlanta who is the author of Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape, emphasises otherwise:
Sex is there, it’s pervasive, it’s critical, and Bonobo society would collapse without it. But it’s not what people think it is. It’s not driven by orgasm or seeking release. Nor is it often reproductively driven. Sex for a bonobo is casual, it’s quick and once you’re used to watching it, it begins to look like any other social interaction.