Chimps and Chumps

by Steve Sailer

Published in National Review, 9/27/99 in a shortened form

Steve Sailer ( is the founder of the Human Biodiversity discussion group.

In recent decades the average Homo sapiens' understanding of other species has grown impressively. For example, Gary Larson's "The Far Side" cartoon simply would not have been funny before PBS showed us countless documentaries on penguins, pandas, and polar bears. Interest in apes and monkeys, especially, has reached an unprecedented level today, as seen in the opening of the $43 million Congo Gorilla Forest at the Bronx Zoo. Even Tarzan movies are now primatologically correct. As recently as 1984, the pretentious "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes" could put extras in generic ape suits -- half-chimpanzee, half-gorilla -- and receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Makeup. Disney's recent "Tarzan" animated feature, however, is quite realistic in its depiction of gorillas (except for the parts about them talking and raising human babies; evidence for that remains strictly anecdotal).

All this is to be encouraged. As the motto of Faber College in "Animal House" reminds us, Knowledge Is Good. The rub, though, is in figuring out how to apply knowledge, especially in applying lessons learned from animals to human beings.

Looking for insight into human nature by studying our closest relatives in the evolutionary tree, our fellow primates, has become a popular intellectual pastime. For guidance on how to live, we increasingly look less to scriptures and more to our cousins with the low foreheads. Now, there are limits to how valuable a role model our furry friends can provide. While no ape would have been so stupid as to have gotten America into our current Banana War with the European Union, none would be smart enough to get us out either. Conversely, those things that all us primates clearly agree upon (e.g., Bananas: Good! Mother Love: Good! Falling out of Tree: Bad!) tend to be unilluminating.

No, what we want apes to tell us are the answers to those fundamental questions about sex and violence that we humans can't agree upon. What makes this mode of inquiry so popular -- yet so fruitless -- is that anybody can turn to their favorite primate for support for their favorite lifestyle. Consider sex and family structure. As any upper-middle class American in 1999 can tell you, nature intended us to live in monogamous, egalitarian, affectionate pairs, like Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser on Mad About You. If you doubt it, just ask our fifth closest cousins, those elegant tree-swinging gibbons.

If you're an NBA star, however, who likes to drop in only every so often on the various mothers of your babies, our fourth closest cousin, the orangutan of Southeast Asia provides all the justification you need..

Each of our three closest relatives is just as useful (if just as inconclusive) an example to somebody. If ayatollahs took up Darwinism, they would find the Koran vindicated by the noble silverback gorilla, who broods in dignified mastery over his harem. Considering how tiresomely recent Disney cartoons have insisted upon injecting modern American feminism into stories set in hilariously anti-feminist cultures like those of the American Indian, the Gypsy, and the ancient Chinese, Disney's "Tarzan" portrays the utterly patriarchal silverback Kerchak with surprising respect. (Disney makes up for this lapse in gender equality by providing Tarzan with a sexually ambiguous best friend named Terk, as voiced by the sexually ambiguous Rosie O'Donnell.)

Similarly, anti-utopian philosophers find their pessimism about human nature vindicated by the thuggish common chimpanzee, whose basic social unit resembles the Hell's Angels, complete with murderous raids on other troops and frequent gang-bangs.

However, feminists, aging hippies, and queer theorists have recently discovered to their delight that there is a rare second species of chimp, the bonobo or pygmy chimp. Noted primatologist Frans de Waal wrote in Scientific American, "At a juncture in history during which women are seeking equality with men, science arrives with a belated gift to the feminist movement. Male-biased evolutionary scenarios - Man the Hunter, Man the Toolmaker and so on -- are being challenged by the discovery that females play a central, perhaps even dominant, role in the social life of one of our nearest relatives."

A bonobo chimp troop resembles an omnisexual commune run by Madonna and Little Richard: everybody has sex with everybody else all day long. Lesbian crotch-to-crotch grinding is a particular favorite, while males practice "penis-fencing." (Bonobos can couple dozens of times per day because each session typically lasts only 13 seconds.) Another run-of-the-mill bit of fun is what New York Times feminist-science reporter Natalie Angier euphemizes as "transgenerational sex" (i.e., child molestation). Bonobos are said to be "peace-loving." Males remain mama's boys their entire lives, "being dependent on [their mothers] for protection" in the words of Dr. de Waal.

A Washington Post reviewer rhapsodized that bonobos "could be the key to a more harmonious human future." University of Michigan psychologist Barbara Smuts writes in Discover magazine that a "deeper understanding of male aggression against females in other species can help us understand its counterpart in our own." Fortunately, bonobos provide us with an example to aspire towards: "Recent field studies show that these unrelated females hang out together and engage in frequent homoerotic behavior; … sex seems to cement their bonds. … [O]ne way that females use these bonds is to form alliances against males, and that, as a consequence, male bonobos do not dominate females or attempt to coerce them sexually." In all caps Ms. Smuts proclaims "SISTERHOOD IS POWERFUL" "Freedom from male control -- including male sexual coercion -- therefore requires women to form alliances with one another …"

Ms. Angier hopes future studies prove we are more closely related to bonobos than to common chimps. Even Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson, the dour authors of "Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence" ask, "Those loving bonobos -- did we pick the wrong primate to evolve from?" Dr. De Waal asserts that the news about the bonobo lifestyle "commands attention because the bonobo shares more than 98 percent of our genetic profile … making it as close to a human as, say, a fox is to a dog. The split between the human line of ancestry and the line of the chimpanzee and the bonobo is believed to have occurred a mere eight million years ago."

There are many poorly thought-through assumptions behind these attitudes. First, bonobos are Darwinian duds. As appealing as their genetic programming may be to the students and faculty of Smith College, their genes have not succeeded in replicating themselves widely: there are fewer than 10,000 bonobos alive, no more than 1/20th the number of those testosterone-addled common chimps.

Second, due to this relative failure to go forth and multiply, we really don't know much yet about bonobos. So, that they are natural born pacifists must still be considered tentative. It took the great Jane Goodall over a decade to notice that the males in her beloved troop of common chimps were genocidal brutes. And it took anthropologists even longer to notice that our hunter-gatherer societies typically have murder rates that make South Central L.A. during a crack epidemic look like International Falls, MN during a blizzard.

Third, whatever the case among bonobos, Sisterhood Isn't Terribly Powerful among women, and probably never will be … for two fundamental reasons. First, women betray other women constantly because it's in their genes' interest that they do so. Your "selfish genes" encourage you to help them propagate themselves via your children and other relations, half of whom will belong to the opposite sex. You compete with your own sex in order to cooperate with the opposite sex in making babies.

Next, when it comes to sexual violence, women aren't protected by other women, but by men: angry fathers with shotguns, vengeful husbands and brothers, police forces, and armies. Men are both the problem and the solution. Only men are strong enough and violent enough to deter other other strong and violent men. For example, the women in any city under siege are in grave danger of mass rape, but only if their armed menfolk are first defeated and slaughtered. If that happens, though, it won't matter how many female-only softball teams there are in town.

Fourth, we didn't evolve from either chimps, bonobos, or gorillas, but from some mysterious extinct common ancestor.

Fifth, the oft-cited 98% figure for shared DNA is less impressive than it looks. Most DNA is unused, so natural selection never changes it. Another big chunk of your personal DNA controls the basics of earthly carbon-based life, and is extremely common across multitudinous organisms. Thus, one study found we share 70% of our DNA with yeast! Perhaps if you don't have a great ape around, you can scrape by letting a packet of Fleischmann's Quick-Rise pinch-hit as your role model. De Waal's statement that a chimp is as genetically similar to a human as a fox is to a dog may be true, but it should remind us of the striking number of gene-driven differences seen merely among dog breeds. A collie is identical to a pit bull in all but a tiny fraction of its genes, yet the two breeds differ radically in size, shape, behavior, mental, and personality. Small genetic differences can have big consequences.

Sixth, the mindset that alludes to the split between humans and chimps as happening a "mere" eight million years (or several hundred thousand generations) ago reflects one of the most disastrous preconceptions afflicting current thinking in the human sciences: that evolution can only happen over endless eons. Marxist media hound Stephen Jay Gould could hardly be said to lack publicity (for example, the Harvard biologist's a cappella rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" was the single most interminably indulgent segment in Ken Burns' 18 hour "Baseball" documentary ) but I must give credit where due. Gould conclusively drew attention to the fact that evolution can take place in a hurry. Of course, what his admirers fail to realize, and Gould himself is deathly afraid to admit, is that his logic also applies to human beings. Just as natural and artificial selection have generated a dazzling variety of dogs in the last few millennia, so they have also generated a delightful degree of human biodiversity, probably more variation than in any nondomesticated animal. Why? In part because we are domesticated animals, too. If you don't believe that humans practice artificial selection on ourselves, then you must never have been turned down for a date. Throughout human history and prehistory, the people best suited to thrive under local environmental and cultural conditions have tended to marry each other. And until very recently, they had on average more surviving children to perpetuate their genes than their less fashionable peers. Thus, our wide variety of nurtures has helped diversify our genetic natures.

In summary, research into our fur-covered relations is fascinating in its own right. Yet, as a means to obtain insight into humanity, it's far less effective, if politically more acceptable, than a clear-eyed study of ourselves. The old sexist Alexander Pope got it right: "The proper study of mankind is man."

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