Do You Bonobo?Published in National Review
The war on terrorism has absorbed our attention since September 11th. While this is appropriate, we should not forget that the long-simmering cultural wars continue. The other side is hard at work, chipping away patiently while all eyes are turned toward Afghanistan.
The latest threat? Courtesy of PBS, the bonobos the “make love, not war” primates are coming to a high school near you for a lesson in evolutionary-sex education.
It all started during that dark week this last September. PBS aired a seven-part series called Evolution, a program that, given the attack, very few bothered to watch. Prominently featured in the fifth episode, “Why Sex?”, were the infamous bonobos.
It was a flashback to the ’60s. Different war, same message from the Left: Sex can save us from war. This time, however, it was served with science, not drugs and rock n’ roll.
The damage, unfortunately, isn’t confined to those few who might have tuned into PBS in the days after the attack. PBS has packaged the Evolution series, and is now, peddling it, along with heavy-handed curricular support, to high schools across the nation. They’ve got major a interactive website, a teacher’s guide, newsletters, support seminars and videos, online courses, a companion book, a traveling propaganda show, and of course the packaged series itself. In short, PBS is offering enough support services for a war a culture war.
There is no doubt on which side of the cultural divide Evolution resides. In “Why Sex?” the conflict between Left and Right was played by bonobos and chimps respectively.
Chimps are male-dominated; the males are aggressive; the females are timid and submissive; and disputes are settled by violence. Worse yet, they use sex for procreation. (Gasp!)
But, Oh!, the bonobo. These lovely ancestors are female-dominated, egalitarian, nearly vegetarian, pansexual, and settle disputes by …well… by ….sex. And not just any sex, but every kind of sex. Sure, males and females sometimes unite, but so do females and females, males and males, and adults and juveniles. Just so there are no doubters in the audience, PBS provided ample footage.
The central, non-too-subtle message, wrapped in the mantle of evolutionary science, was both clearly stated and vividly illustrated: We human beings would be better off to imitate our ancestors the bonobos, rather than the chimps. The use of science to forward a particular moral and political agenda could not have been bolder.
The bonobo sequence came from the school of primatologist Frans de Waal, C. H. Candler Professor of Primate Behavior at Emory University. Author of many books on the social behavior of primates, he recently collaborated with Frans Lanting, a wildlife photographer, to create Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape which according to one reviewer, shows that “Bonobos represent the silver lining in our ape heritage.”
Picture-wise, Bonobo, the book, is unforgettable. As it turns out, bonobos are even more inventive sexually than depicted in the lurid sequences in PBS’s “Why Sex?” But the point for de Waal and for PBS is the same. Here, in the bonobo, we have (in de Waal’s words) “a politically correct primate,” the study of which “could lead to a revised view of the origins of human nature.” Revisionist science? Why so?
Evolution has always been pushed by the Left because it helps rid the world of brooding deities and hard-line moralities. But one unpleasant aspect of linking up with the primates has haunted this effort. According to accepted evolutionary theory, we are most directly related to the chimpanzee, among whom (in de Waal’s words) the “males are conspicuously dominant over females; they reign supremely and often brutally.” Our closest fore-apes are quite aggressive all the way around, fighting not only over food, but females and territory as well. Alas, evolution seemed to provide evidence for the naturalness of the military-industrial complex as run by macho males who lord it over their submissive wives.
Enter the bonobo, discovered in 1929, the “make love, not war” evolutionary answer to the secular Left’s dilemma. The bonobo, classed as Pan paniscus (“diminutive Pan” because they seemed smaller than the chimpanzee also in the genus Pan), would better be called, jokes de Waal, by the old taxonomic name of the chimpanzee, Pan satyrus, referring to “the myth of apes as lustful satyrs.”
All this lust, however, serves an admirable evolutionary goal, so the argument goes: the substitution of sex for aggression. Throw a banana into a cage full of chimpanzees and the males immediately fight, while the females cower. What happens when you throw a banana into a cage full of bonobos? As de Waal reports, “As soon as a caretaker approached the enclosure with food, the males would develop erections. Even before the food was thrown into the area, the bonobos would be inviting each other for sex: males would invite females, and females would invite males and other females.”
Such behavior has also been observed in the wild where, once a food source was procured by the bonobo group, scientists observed a “flurry of sexual contacts [which] would last for five to 10 minutes, after which the apes would settle down to consume the food.” The lesson is too obvious: “sexual activity is the bonobo’s answer to avoiding conflict.”
The only difference between de Waal’s analysis and PBS’s, is that the scientific consensus of the series seemed to be that, drat it all!, we really did evolve from the chimp. If only we truly had inherited our proximate genes from the bonobos, mused the narrator of “Why Sex?” wistfully, “we might have evolved to be a totally different, more peaceful, less violent, more sexual species.”
The message, unfortunately, isn’t isolated. The series was designed as part of a larger educational package meant to wend its way into the nation’s various science curricula. Whatever the merits of the rest of the series, “Why Sex?” was carefully crafted to serve the agenda of the leftward leaners, and this packaging tactic will be all the more effective, because young minds will be all the more susceptible to the “make love” message amidst the struggles and uncertainties of war.
Benjamin Wiker is a fellow of Discovery Institute and lecturer in the History and Philosophy of Science, Franciscan University of Steubenville.