Bonobo are most of the time marginalized. The recent genome data confirm that bonobos and chimpanzees are equidistant to us, and genetically exactly equally similar to (or different from) us. Yet, most anthropology texts about our ape ancestry mention the species only to say how lovely and charming they are, immediately followed by how we can safely ignore them. They are not to be taken seriously. Even their endangered status has been held against them. Anthropologist Melvin Konner once advocated attention to chimpanzees rather than bonobos by saying “And in any case, chimps have done far better than bonobos, which are very close to extinction.”

I have no trouble with the conclusion of the authors of the Nature paper, led by Michael Wilson of the University of Minnesota, according to which chimpanzee violence is a natural behavioral tendency that is not a product of human interference. The interference hypothesis made perhaps sense in the days when Jane Goodall maintained a banana camp for her apes, but those days are long gone. Most of the evidence for violence in the wild now comes from chimpanzee communities that never received any extra food from humans. I have witnessed enough chimpanzee violence first-hand to understand what they are capable of, and have little doubt that field workers are right that chimps use violence to achieve dominance or expand their territory. No, my beef is rather with the exclusive focus on one ape species and one gender, and the highly speculative nature of the claim that we have continuously been at war since the split between ape and human lineages. Although archeological signs of individual murder go back hundreds of thousands of years, similar evidence for warfare (such as graveyards with weapons embedded in a large number of skeletons) is entirely lacking from before the Agricultural Revolution of about 12,000 years ago. We have no data to make any claims about warfare before this time.

Consider a different scenario. Let’s say we descend from peaceful bonobo-like apes, which mingled at their borders without any violence, the way wild bonobos are known to do today. Instead of fighting, they have sex and groom each other. Like Ardipithecus, our ancestors were anatomically similar to bonobos and slowly developed more aggressive and territorial tendencies, which erupted into full-blown territorial combat only once we settled down and collected land and livestock. This was the main cause of warfare. In the meantime, an offshoot of the ape branch, the chimpanzee, also became more violent, perhaps because of higher population densities or other reasons related to resources, but its behavior never resembled warfare in the human sense. It did not consist of one organized army meeting another, but was more like opportunistic raiding behavior, so that a comparison with warfare is problematic. The above scenario is equally compatible with the current knowledge about our history and prehistory as the bloody scenario reflected in the media headlines.

I for one would love to see science consider all options. This means inclusion of the female point of view — female reproduction, cooperation, competition, and care for offspring — as well as serious consideration of the make-love-not-war bonobo. The species may be embarrassing to some scholars the way 1960s hippies were to their parents, but it is time for us to explore all four quadrants of comparison rather than limiting ourselves for no good reason to just one of them.

No Room For A Gentle Ape | The Evolution Institute.