Jane VaynmanWe Are Monkeys

For those worrying about Iran, or realizing that it is in fact only Tuesday, here is something to lift your spirits.

There is a wonderful article in the January/February 2006 issue of Foreign Affairs called A Natural History of Peace. Yes, this is an article about monkeys. It is about monkeys (or apes rather) that fight, and monkeys that cooperate, and how altered conditions can have very interesting effects on both behaviors.

The author, Robert Sapolsky, studies primates of many varieties (particularly stressed baboons), and in this article he writes about our not-so-distant cousin, the bonobo. This is my favorite quote:

Bonobo sex is the prurient highlight of primatology conferences, and leads parents to shield their children’s eyes when watching nature films. Bonobos have sex in every conceivable position and some seemingly inconceivable ones, in pairs and groups, between genders and within genders, to greet each other and to resolve conflicts, to work off steam after a predator scare, to celebrate finding food or cajole its sharing, or just because.

In case you are not yet clear as to why this article is in Foreign Affairs (or why it is relevant to this blog), Sapolsky explains in the article’s conclusion:

The first half of the twentieth century was drenched in the blood spilled by German and Japanese aggression, yet only a few decades later it is hard to think of two countries more pacific. Sweden spent the seventeenth century rampaging through Europe, yet it is now an icon of nurturing tranquility. Humans have invented the small nomadic band and the continental megastate, and have demonstrated a flexibility whereby uprooted descendants of the former can function effectively in the latter. We lack the type of physiology or anatomy that in other mammals determine their mating system, and have come up with societies based on monogamy, polygyny, and polyandry. And we have fashioned some religions in which violent acts are the entrée to paradise and other religions in which the same acts consign one to hell. Is a world of peacefully coexisting human Forest Troops possible? Anyone who says, “No, it is beyond our nature,” know too little about primates, including ourselves.


  1. brn

    So I can safely conclude we’re going to make oscene nature films? Oh wait…

  2. Michael Roston (History)

    Wait, are you saying that we’re related to monkeys in some way?

  3. STieh (History)

    It’s always interesting to get input from thinkers outside the political science/security community – even (especially?) if it’s from a man who has spent most of his adult life in Africa watching primates mate and occasionally shooting them with blowdarts.

  4. Matthew Bunn (History)

    Shades of Paul Warnke’s 1975 “Apes on a Treadmill”!

  5. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    That single paragraph is the only one about the bonobos, and Sapolsky says what he says in it to indicate that bonobos are not a good model for humans.

    The important part of the article is his findings about chimps and baboons, much more like hostile humans, and how they figure out how to live together.

    More here.

  6. James (History)

    So this is what happens when Jeffrey goes away for a week…

    J/K Jane – hilarious quote.

  7. dan (History)

    Oh please. Only difference is that if Jeff were here, he’d have included a link to bushorchimp.com.