This myth about chimps helps justify patriarchy and war

bonobo cub
© Sergey Uryadnikov/Shutterstock

Are chimps really humanity’s single closest cousins?

I recently saw a video that claimed chimpanzees are humanity’s closest cousins. You hear this a lot in articles and videos — that chimpanzees are the closest animals to humans. It’s not true.

Chimpanzees may be closely related to humans, but they’re tied for first. Bonobos, another ape, are just as close. Humans split off from this evolutionary trail before chimpanzees and bonobos divided into two species. And yet, people often forget about bonobos.

“Until now the strategy of many anthropologists has been to marginalise the bonobo,” said Frans de Waal, a Dutch primatologist.

It’s no mere technicality. Humans look to their animal cousins for clues about themselves. And when they watch chimps, they see violence, strict hierarchies and male-domination.Males run chimp society. They form strict hierarchies where the males jealously guard “their” females and frequently fight each other and other groups of chimps. Some use chimps to justify sexism and hierarchy in human behavior. After all, if our closest cousins are hierarchical, patriarchal and war hungry, maybe our own sexist and violent behavior is just in our nature.

“Male chimpanzees can be really horrible to females,” said Ian Gilby, an Arizona State University primatologist. “It is possible that in our early ancestors there may have been an adaptive value to male aggression against females.”

But bonobos are different. Bonobo society is female dominated. These apes also have a hippie, queer, free-love lifestyle. And they’re just as closely related to humans as chimps.

“Chimpanzees can be very empathetic, loving but they also have this darker side. They have war, they kill each other, they beat their females. Bonobos don’t really have any of that,” said Vanessa Woods, a researcher at Duke University. “They’re different because they’ve managed to live in a society virtually without violence. How do they do that? Humans, for all of our intelligence and all our technology, we haven’t managed to live without war, and so I think that’s something very important that bonobos can teach us.”

The same kind of thinking that says humans are like chimps urges people to compete with each other until there’s nothing left. It’s the thinking that says countries should engage in trade wars rather than teaming up to overcome environmental problems. It’s the thinking that says men should control the political realm and that humans must sacrifice the Earth to remain the most powerful, dominant species.

When people leave bonobos out of the story, they (unintentionally, I’m sure) spread a false worldview in which this competitive, violent world is the natural order. Domination — over women, over other species — is the way of the world. But as bonobos show us, there are a lot of natural orders. Violence, peace, patriarchy, matriarchy, competitive, cooperation … the natural world is full of opposites. It’s up to us to decide what kind of society we’d like to live in; chimps are no excuse.