When you hear about the scientific misunderstandings of the past, you sometimes ask yourself, How on earth could that have happened? How did no one notice that their scientific findings served only to mirror their cultural beliefs?
You mean people really thought they could determine differences in racial intelligence from cranium measurements? They thought the uterus moved around and caused hysteria? They thought female orgasm was a treatment for hysteria, properly brought about in the doctor's office?
Reading the recent story about bonobos in The New Yorker, you almost feel like you can see how it happens. The scientists here are patient observers. But the cultural overlay, the expected conclusions, and the interpretation of their work is such that it is no wonder that bonobos are considered both peace-loving, happy, and sexually explorative and also warlike, grouchy, and competitive.
A particularly inscrutable bonobo at the Milwaukee County Zoo. Photo by Flickr user vigilant20, here.
The idea seems to be: Bonobos are like us. So they can help find out, once and for all, what we are like. If, as has been thought up to now, bonobos are matriarchal, clit-diddling, food-sharing little angels, maybe we are too. If, as now seems possible, they are hierarchical, toe-chomping, angry little bastards, well, maybe we are too.
Up to now, the bonobos have enjoyed a kind of ganja-smoking, swinger image. This, it turns out, was based largely on studies in zoos, where they were observed having lots of hetero- and homo-sexual sex of all kinds, and kind of lazing around.
But in the wild they aren't always like this, and there are now plenty of observations of bonobo brutality. Even in the zoos, after time, there can be a fair amount of aggression. One biologist describes seeing five females attack a male: "They were gnawing on his toes. I'd already seen bonobos with digits missing, but I'd thought they would have been bitten off like a dog would bite. But they really chew. There was flesh between their teeth."
The story describes Frans de Waal as using the sunnier bonobo portrait to beat up on the idea that human morality is a restraint on otherwise vicious beings. And, not surprisingly, people love this idea. "Make love not war!" cries the Bonobo Conservation Initiative. "You can't very will fight a war while you're having an orgasm," says the sex advisor Susan Block on her program, "The Bonobo Way."
You'd have thought everyone would be falling all over themselves to point out the insanity of using studies of animals to figure out the truth about human nature. But that doesn't even come up.
One reason there is so little research on the bonobos in the wild is that the animals are in hard-to-reach, politically unstable, dangerous places. The whole thing makes you want to shout: look, if you're trying to understand people, you don't have to hike eight days through the woods and live on seeds! We're right here! All around you!
Of course, studying people just tells you about, you know, people. But studying animals, well, maybe that can tell us about what we're really like -- what we'd be like if we weren't raised in some particular culture.
But when I feel this question being asked -- what are people really like? -- the first thing that comes to mind is, "Who wants to know"? Because really, what's the point of even asking what people are like when they're raised outside of some particular culture? Everyone is raised in some culture.
By all means, study the bonobos. But don't expect the outcomes to tell us whether free-love, socialism, and equality are good for us. Or whether we should just build more jails for toe-biters. We'll have to figure those things out on our own.