Thursday, June 30

We will be the monkey that we choose to be

We have always been told that the closest living relative to the human being, phylogenetically speaking, is the chimpanzee. Genetics say we are up to 95% alike. And the resemblance is the same both with the common chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes, as with him Paniscus bread, also known as a pygmy chimpanzee or bonobo. It would not be strange that seeing an image we could confuse them. These two species of apes are extremely similar in appearance, although the former is somewhat larger and more robust, and the latter is smaller and more graceful. The trait that most differentiates both species is their behavior. Meanwhile he Pan troglodytes is a hierarchical and aggressive animal, organized around clans of related males, the Paniscus bread It is a peaceful animal, living in large groups led by females, and whose interactions and conflict resolution are based on sex. Hence, there are those who have called the bonobo “the hippie monkey.”

The male chimpanzees are highly territorial, and they have hostile and sometimes lethal intergroup encounters with relative frequency. They hunt in groups, compete violently for females or resources, use sticks as weapons, and are extremely territorial. This behavior explains his greater corpulence and his sexual dimorphism marked. The differences between males and females are highly visible, with males significantly larger. On the contrary, in bonobos there is hardly any sexual dimorphism or violent behavior. The sexual interactions with which they resolve conflicts occur intrafamily, with individuals of both sexes and even with child individuals. In chimpanzee communities it is common to find males and females segregated into groups, while in bonobos individuals of both sexes associate preferentially with females. In fact, the best ally of a young male bonobo, from infancy to maturity, is always his mother, with whom they even cooperate to promote her reproductive success.

Bonobo females, and not males, occupy the highest positions of the social ladder. Studies suggest that they reach them by cultivating their social relationships through, for example, genital rubbing, rather than resorting to fighting and temporary alliances, as male chimpanzees do. Given the preponderant role of sexuality in bonobo communities and these primates’ propensity for friendly bonds (especially between females), they do not go to war with other neighboring communities. Sexual behaviors are enormously complex and encompass a variety of interactions and practices, from complex kissing, masturbating oneself to relieve tension or with individuals of both sexes, and even intercourse in a wide variety of positions. In fact, bonobos are, along with humans, the only members of the animal kingdom who practice the “missionary posture”, that is, they look at each other while they copulate.

Male bonobos, unlike chimpanzee males, do not form coalitions with individuals of the same sex to gain power through violence. Arguably, while chimpanzees turn to power to solve sexual problems, bonobos turn to sex to solve power problems. Interestingly, these two evolutionarily separated species about two million years ago, never coexist in the same territory. His Distribution area, which also overlaps with that of the gorilla, is found in the African equatorial belt. But the bonobo is restricted to the left bank of the Congo River, an insurmountable barrier for its closest relatives. Chimpanzees and gorillas live only on the right bank. This apparently has allowed bonobos to enjoy relatively calm and stable social groups, thanks to the abundance of herbaceous vegetation on the left bank of the Congo River and the absence of gorillas to compete with them for food. Bonobos have an almost inexhaustible supply of food, so there are no times of scarcity or famine, and the competition for food is not as fierce as among chimpanzees. This fact could have had important evolutionary consequences.

The availability of resources necessary for survival can influence the forms of social organization, as well as the mating systems, that we observe in animals. In fact, these types of phenomena have been observed throughout the animal kingdom: mammals, birds Y reptiles they adapt their behavior to better fit the surrounding circumstances. Between very close species, and even within the same species, behavior can radically change depending on the environment that surrounds them. We can find species that are solitary or territorial when food and shelter appear dispersed in the territory, but they become more gregarious and sociable if the resources are abundant or appear accumulated in patches.

The origin of the different behavior of bonobos could be due to the large amount of food available, which in turn would lead to the formation of large groups of individuals and social interactions based more on alliances than on fights. In various animal species, including humans, it has been seen that the adversity leads to less investment in class action. The relative abundance of resources in the bonobo habitat tends to lessen dominance struggles and inter-individual combat, and encourages female bonobo to have a longer period of sexual receptivity, which in turn reduces its importance for the males compete for dominance and harass the females. Bonobos avoid violence and the crudest aggression, but they do not live a completely calm and carefree existence. They use diversified and relatively frequent socio-sexual behaviors as a means of managing group conflicts.

There can be no two species physically closer than the chimpanzee and the bonobo that have more disparate behavior. In both human beings we can see ourselves reflected. We have complex sexual behaviors and alliance-based interactions, like bonobos. But we really prove every day to be a bellicose, patriarchal and aggressive species, with a strong hierarchical component, like chimpanzees. We shared a common ancestor with both about eight million years ago, but which one are we more like?

Behavior is a flexible character and capable of rapidly evolving to adapt to circumstances. In fact, it constitutes the most plastic of all phenotypic plasticities. It seems that circumstances influence whether we choose bonobo mode or chimpanzee mode. Our experiences together with the environment, the availability of resources or the education received condition our individual and social behavior.

The human being is by nature neither aggressive, nor peaceful, nor violent, nor hierarchical, nor territorial. People, due to their rational condition, and thanks to a highly developed neocortex, are prepared to adapt their behavior to circumstances. Our intelligence, together with our social orientation, makes us perhaps the most flexible and adaptable of the species. We have been able to reach the abyssal bottoms, the highest mountains and even the Moon! We have tripled our life expectancy and populated every corner of the planet. But sometimes, our behavior with our fellow man is too reminiscent of that of the Pan troglodytes. It doesn’t hurt that, from time to time, we wonder what cute we want to be.