The Right Coast

January 06, 2004
Maybe That's Why They're in the Zoo
By Gail Heriot

The San Diego Zoo is a wonderful place. It fully deserves its reputation as among the best zoos in the world. It's impossible to see everything in one afternoon, but like most visitors, I was careful to include a stop by the ape exhibits on my recent trip there. Of special interest to me were the rare bonobos, which, for those of you who don't know your apes, are pygmy chimpanzees. The species--pan paniscus--lives exclusively in remote area of the North Central Congo and is said to be in serious danger of extinction.

Bonobos have received considerable attention from those who like to draw lessons from nature about the supposed "naturalness" or "unnaturalness" of human sexual behavior. If you've ever heard that human beings are the only species to engage in homosexuality, forget it. Bonobo males not only commmonly engage in sex with other bonobo males, they do so hanging from trees. Lesbianism is, if anything, more common. Some experts have suggested that female bonobos integrate themselves into a new community by providing sexual favors to the established females. Indeed, it is hard to come up with with a sexual practice that the promiscuous bonobos would consider taboo. Incest does not appear to carry with it any special stigma, whether acted out between siblings, father and daughter, or mother and son. Sex between adults and children is also common. And it's not just particular sexual activity that draws human attention; it's the amount of activity. Zoologists observing bonobos in captivity report that males get erections around feeding time; they know that meals are usually accompanied with a little action. It's said that the average married American believes that the average married American is getting laid more often than he (or she) is. Bonobos really are.

If you are tempted to draw any conclusions about the blissfully (or not-so-blissfully) uninhibited sex lives of our hunter-gatherer ancestors from the bonobo example, resist. Simian sexual practices vary significantly from species to species, and it's hard to come up with good reasons to suppose that early humans were more like bonobos than like other apes. Gabons are monogamous; gorillas are polygamous. More ordinary chimpanzees (pan troglodytes) are less promiscuous than the randy bonobos, but you still wouldn't want your sister to associate with them. And the orangutan is perhaps the most foreign to the human way of doing things: They lead solitary lives occasionally punctuated with brief sexual encounters with members of the opposite sex--not a life that many of us aspire to.

More important, if you are inclined to draw normative conclusions for humans from the bonobo example, again resist. The bonobos' uninhibited sex lives do not seem to have resulted in any great gains for the bonobo species. After millions of years of evolution, bonobos are clinging to a few acres of land in the Congo. Human beings, on the other hand, with all their sexual inhibitions and taboos, now number six billion. They have built great cathedrals, cured diseases in both man and animal, and landed Martian probes. I can't prove the traditional sexual mores have anything to do with this; then again I can't prove they don't have any connection either. Until that proof comes along, I am somewhat inclined to stick to my taboos and inhibitions. I would add that bonobos also have to endure the indignity of humans gawking at their sexual practices at the San Diego Zoo. But they didn't seem to mind that. Really.