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Primates

Chimpanzee. Image: Flickr

Chimpanzee. Image: Flickr

By Larry Plesent

The thing about ubiquitous invisible cultural perceptions is that they are, well, often invisible. I stumbled onto one of these last week when I saw a pop-news headline claiming once again that chimpanzees are our closest genetic relatives. This, in fact, is not exactly true.

According to a 2012 article by K. Pruf in Nature, “Two African apes are the closest living relatives of humans: the chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) and the bonobo (Pan paniscus). Although they are similar in many respects, bonobos and chimpanzees differ strikingly in key social and sexual behavior, and for some of these traits they show more similarity with humans than with each other.

Further, whereas chimpanzees are widespread across equatorial Africa, bonobos live only south of the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As a result of their relatively small and remote habitat, bonobos were the last ape species to be described and are the rarest of all apes in captivity. As a consequence, they have, until recently, been little studied. It is known that whereas DNA sequences in humans diverged from those in bonobos and chimpanzees five to seven million years ago, DNA sequences in bonobos diverged from those in chimpanzees around two million years ago. Bonobos are thus closely related to chimpanzees.”

This is incredible stuff. Humans and chimps diverged five to seven million years ago from a common ancestor, and bonobos split off from chimps two million years ago. This makes us all very closely related along this multimillion year genetic tree. Somewhere back there is presumed a common ancestor of all three species which exhibited characteristics common to all (and to us).

Now here is where it gets crazy. Chimpanzees are an aggressive male-dominated territorial society. Bonobos on the other hand are the relatively carefree matriarchal led love-child hippies of the primate kingdom. Their inevitable response to societal stress within the troop is to party and males rarely bump chests to prove dominance.

According to that same Nature article, “Compared with chimpanzees, bonobos are playful throughout their lives and show intense sexual behavior that serves non-conceptive functions and often involves same-sex partners. Thus, chimpanzees and bonobos each possess certain characteristics that are more similar to human traits than they are to one another’s.”

OK, let’s get this straight. According to this genetic analysis published in a respected journal, humans share a nearly equal genetic heritage with two very different groups exhibiting two very different lifestyles and responses resulting from their two-million-year-old ways of life. One group is aggressive and male-dominated. The other, passive, playful, sexy and female-dominated. Both sets of genetics are presumed to come from a common ancestor. Humans, it stands to reason, have an equal propensity to either way of life. This is important: we seem to have one tenth of 1% more chimp genes than bonobo genes.

Is it possible that our entire view of what it means to be human is weighted by that slight fraction of a percentage that brings us closer to chimps than bonobos? Is it possible that, if we leaned one-tenth of 1% towards the bonobo side, our life view and lifestyle and our relationship to the Earth itself would be very different?

The hippies had it right. Don’t make war, have a party instead.

Larry Plesent is a writer, philosopher and soap maker living and working in the Green Mountains of Vermont. Learn more at www.vermontsoap.com www.reactivebody.org and www.cancereraser.org.

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