Secrets of the Bonobo Sisterhood
A cutting-edge professor reveals how our ape cousins celebrate the power of female friendship
By Jessica Seigel
Tourists in straw hats and flip-flops press their noses to the glass, trying to make sense of a strange yet oddly familiar scene in the bonobo ape enclosure at the San Diego Zoo. One woman in the crowd, though-the scientist with long blond hair, denim miniskirt and black platform sandals-isn't at all perplexed by what she sees, and is happy to decode it for the rest of us.
"There's Junior," says pioneering primate researcher Amy Parish, pointing to a rambunctious male bonobo rolling on the ground as a baby ape gleefully jumps on his chest. A few feet away, a female bonobo paces, eyeing the playful duo. "That's Lolita," Parish says, introducing the second character in the drama unfolding amid the palm trees.
On the surface, the action appears wholesome and all too human: the joy in dandling a baby on a sunny day. But, then Lolita plants herself in Junior's face, spreading her legs wide and tilting up her pelvis. In primate research lingo, she is "presenting." In people talk...well, enough said.
It's just another slice of jungle life, as Parish, 38, has documented over more than a decade studying the bonobos, who resemble chimpanzees although more slender, with smaller heads and hair parted down the center like Little Rascal Alfalfa. Parish's groundbreaking work shows how bonobos live in a society surprisingly dominated by females, who use gal-pal alliances to exert power. And that puts a revolutionary twist on long-held beliefs about what's "natural" in terms of sex roles and female friendships-not just for these apes but for their close genetic cousins: us.
Reading Parish's work on the under-studied bonobo matriarchs is one thing; it's another to see the animals in all their rated vigor. Lolita's come-on sends one stroller-pushing family literally running away, the indignant human father harrumphing: "I think we've seen enough."
Oh no, we haven't. With Junior focusing on the baby as a diversion, Lolita resorts to what looks like Hollywood overacting, extending her right arm toward him and beckoning with upturned fingers-one of many gestures uncannily similar to those of humans. (The bonobo also enjoy face-to-face sex-among other positions- unlike our equally close chimp relatives who usually couple with the male behind the female.)
Junior looks away, crossing a bent leg over the other, lying back nonchalantly like a starlet reclining on a poolside lounger. But Lolita persists-far longer than most human females would flirt with an uninterested man. "It's like watching a soap opera," says Parish, one of the few moms in the world whose young son (12-year-old Kalind, named after the first bonobo she ever met) complains about having to go the zoo again. "I could stand here all day," she says. "I'm never bored."
Suddenly, Lolita grabs Junior's testicles. While the grope might shock the uninitiated, Parish has seen it all before.
"It really goes against the stereotype that males are always eager, females always reluctant," says Parish in a typically soft- spoken voice that often hides wry understatement. In fact, Lolita's behavior belies all those datingadvice books that insist, Don't call him, he'll call you. "It has a lot of implications for us," says Parish. "That's why I study them, because I want to learn something about humans. All our models in the past were based on chimps, where we see male dominance, patriarchy and warfare. If you really want to understand where we came from, the bonobo open up the possibilities."
One of the last large mammals discovered, the bonobo were only confirmed as a separate species in the early 20th century. Research on them was just heating up when Parish entered the University of Michigan in 1984, finding her way to the Program in Evolution and Human Behavior, a hotbed of cutting-edge theory on the origins of animal and human culture. She soon found a mentor in biopsychology professor Barbara Smuts, known for creating a new "friendship" model of how baboon males ingratiate themselves with females rather than "ruling" them.
Parish pursued her Ph.D. at the University of California, Davis, under legendary primatologist Sarah Hrdy, one of few female members of the National Academy of Sciences. A pioneering disciple of controversial sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, Hrdy is credited with the feminist critique of latterday Darwinism that helped transform the field of sociobiology and primatology (see sidebar, page 48).
Many scientists would prefer to study apes in their natural environment, but the endangered bonobo live in perilous territory of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where guerrilla warfare hampered jungle research for many years. (Back in the 1970s, Barbara Smuts was one of three graduate students brutally kidnapped by Zairian rebels while researching at chimp specialist Jane Goodall's Gombe station.) Luckily, growing evidence suggests that captive and wild ape behavior are similar, so the bonobo colony shared by the San Diego Wild Animal Park and Zoo offered a unique research opportunity for Parish.
For more than two years, Parish sat in a folding chair outside the apes' dry-moated habitat at the Park, logging individual behaviors on a computer. She originally planned to study male- female bonds, as had her mentor Smuts, but then noticed unusual behavior: Unrelated females seemed to prefer each other's company to males. They lolled about grooming each other, shared food, kissed and hugged, and even rubbed genitals to cement special friendships- the latter behavior getting most of the ink when bonobos first came to public attention. As a group, bonobo guys seemed out of the loop, a marked contrast to male-dominated chimpanzee politics.
Researchers in the wild had noted the unusual pattern for at least 10 years, but hesitated to come out with conclusions, says famed primatologist Frans de Waal, coauthor of the influential 1997 book Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape (University of California Press). "To say a very close relative to us is female-dominated sounded unlikely. It was disturbing for some people. There was resistance."
There still is. But Parish minced no words in her own research, later strengthening the case with a study on overlooked data: She counted up blood-drawing injuries from zoo records around the world, finding that female bonobos victimized males in almost every violent case, including a Bobbitt-like incident that required microsurgery reattachment. "Every zoo had its own interpretation about what was wrong with their particular male," Parish recalls, bemused at the stories she heard. "They believed that he'd somehow been turned into a wimp."
In fact, bonobo females are fighters as well as lovers, although males in the wild can more easily escape serious injury by fleeing into the jungle. The females will even fight each other to protect their sons-ultimate mama's boys whose rank through life depends on their mothers. Many bonobo daughters leave their family group at adolescence, joining other colonies by currying favor with senior, older females.
While some critics still dismiss the bonobo matriarchy as a fluke or feminist delusion, Parish and others counter with theory and evidence that show how female bonding works to control individual males despite the males' slightly larger size. Unlike abused loner chimp females, it's likely that the bonobo gal gang prevents males from killing the babies of rival males (as other apes do) and allows females to choose their own mates and grab the best food. In the wild, females also hunt and distribute meat, once considered exclusively a male preserve. "Amy's contribution was to focus attention on the female relationships," says de Waal, once her professor and today a collaborator. "She provided a framework to understand it."
"Women are often characterized as petty, infighting and jealous," Parish points out. "But in fact, when females get together, that gives them an incredible power base." Perceived or observed "backbiting" among women, she says, stems from patriarchy, which forces women to compete in a male-ruled game and then belittles them when they do.
As a mother and researcher, Parish has personally felt the power of the bonobo sisterhood. One time, she tried to photograph the dominant bonobo female, Louise, by waving at her so she would turn toward the camera. But Louise mistook the gesture for begging-a panhandling motion-and instead threw the scientist half her celery bunch. "I was so touched," says Parish, her voice wobbling with emotion at the memory. "I used to eat my lunch out there all the time and not share with them. It was so nice she would do that. I really felt part of the group."
The bonds deepened when Parish gave birth at age 26 (the father was her boyfriend at the time, a fellow primate researcher). When she appeared at the animal park with fuzzy-headed Kalind on her hip, the bonobos howled with excitement. Another new mother, bonobo Lana, dashed off, returning with her own fuzzy-faced baby, holding it up with both arms outstretched. One doesn't need an advanced primatology degree to interpret that image of two mothers sharing pride in their young.
Inspired by her research subjects, Parish has been raising her son on a primate-influenced model. She constantly carrie\d him as a baby, slept in the same bed and nursed him for over five years. Citing evolution, she explains that babies are meant to be kept close, naturally crying as a survival mechanism when left alone. "Our biggest criteria on whether a baby is 'good' is whether it sleeps by itself every night," she says, scoffing at the notion.
Relating animal and human behavior is also a theme of the courses she currently teaches in sex, gender and female biology at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. She has had students keep journals analyzing their own social habits, and Parish regularly refers to her own life to illustrate points-such as disclosing her close relationship with her far-flung parents, with whom she speaks by telephone most days. Such teaching on the value of right family bonds in an independence-obsessed culture was one of many epiphanies for recent graduate Kerrie Kvashay-Boyle: "Before, I thought it was almost shameful to talk to my mother everyday," she says. "Now I feel proud of it."
Today, based in San Diego with her construction contractor boyfriend of five years and commuting to USC, Parish relies on a tight circle of three other working mothers to share their sons' child care. She and the other moms-a microbiologist, a psychologist and a chaplinfounded their own school when local alternatives didn't pan out, even helping build an old-fashioned, one-room schoolhouse on the schoolteacher's farm. "We're very much like bonobo mothers," says Parish. "If things aren't going well for the children, we'll exert our influence. We're strong mothers."
Back at the zoo-Lolita is still chasing the reluctant Junior- Parish hopes to catch up with the bonobo mother with whom she had shared that moment of early motherhood. "I would know her anywhere," Parish says, scanning the leafy enclosure for a glimpse of playful Lana, now the troop's senior female.
When Lana finally bounds into view, Parish demurely kneels to ape level. Nodding her head up and down, she makes a soft shush-shush sound, somewhere between a coo and snort, which certainly can't be heard through the thick pane of glass but seems to communicate in some way. When Lana finally sees her, the now-prime bonobo gal dashes up to the glass, reaching out a long, dark hand.
Tourists on the observation deck stand back in awe, startled that a bonobo has come right up to the display window. Conversation stops as they watch Lana's hairy black face nuzzle up to the petite, pale woman. Separated by the display pane, their palms touch.
Lana locks eyes with Parish, then presses her side to the clear barrier. "You're so beautiful," Parish coos, and strokes the ape's flank through the pane, mimicking grooming.
The greeting is girlfriend to girlfriend, bridging an ancestral divide going back 5 to 6 million years. "It's primeval. Electric. It makes your hair stand on end," Parish says later. "You feel this deep understanding of someone so like you in so many ways. They really are so human and we're so apelike. It's such a feeling of kinship." END
PHOTO: Researcher Amy Parish has personally experienced the power-and generosity-of the bonobo sisterhood.
PHOTO: While some critics still dismiss the bonobo matriarchy as a fluke or feminist delusion, Parish and others counter with theory and evidence.
What Do Females Want? Darwinian feminists color in the evolutionary picture
For a good century, evolutionary scientists overlooked the significance of female animals' behavior-such as mothering-by treating it as a kind of passive constant in a drama driven by aggressive males competing for sex. Females, the scientists decided, just waited around to choose the victor. Freud at least had asked, What do women want?, but these researchers didn't get that far, because they thought females didn't count that much.
In the last diree decades, however, feminist scientists have spurred a startling reevaluation of animal behavior. Now, researchers have painstakingly gathered evidence to prove what seems obvious but was long denied: Female animals play as active a role in evolution as do males. Todays studies, from apes in the wild to flies in the laboratory, reveal natures surprisingly complex female politics, in which rank, sociability, mate choice, multiple-mating, competition and infanticide all influence reproduction, child survival, and how genes and behavior pass to the next generation.
"In the 1950s and 1960s, [scientists] inherited a view of human evolution that males naturally dominate females. The feminists changed the picture," says Londa Schiebinger, director of Stanford University's Institute for Research on Women and Gender. Her book Has Feminism Changed Science? (Harvard University Press, 1999) identifies primatology as one of the main fields that feministsmen and women-overhauled under the influence of the 1970s women's movement.
The goal of these primatologists was simple: Pay equal attention to male and female interests. So says legendary anthropologist Sarah Hrdy, known for groundbreaking research on primate infanticide and revising Darwinian theory in such books as The Woman That Never Evolved (Harvard University Press, 1981) and Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species (Pantheon, 1999). And that attitude has finally become de rigueur. "Feminist critiques of evolutionary theory," says Hrdy, "have been incorporated into the mainstream to a remarkable degree."
Introducing feminist ideas into Darwinian circles was initially resisted in the turbulent 1970s when Hrdy was one of few graduate women in the Harvard anthropology department. The exciting and controversial field of sociobiology-an updated revival of Darwinian evolutionary theory-was then coming into vogue, but some of its thinking rested on a view of sex roles plucked straight from the Victorian era: namely that males are aggressive and ardent, females passive and coy. As for the women scientists themselves, "At that time, and still today, feminist remains a very dirty word-a taint that young scientists in the field wish to avoid," says Hrdy. But she and others persisted, and her critique of Darwinism, which put the female of the species back into the evolutionary picture, laid the theoretical groundwork for the next 25 years of fill-in-the- gaps research.
Many of the gaps have been filled by new forms of observation. For example, in a key advance, primatologist Jeanne Altmann's field methods removed researcher bias by randomly choosing animals to observe for a specific interval. This raised the status of once- ignored activities, such as nurturing young, food gathering, socializing, grooming and lolling around. As the new focus chipped away at stereotypes-including the idea that female monogamy is natural-researchers initially faced skepticism, even outrage. When her 1984 landmark study showed that supposedly faithful bluebird mothers were sneaking off to have sex with the bird next door (shades of Desperate Housewives!), the rebuttais were harsh, recalls University of Georgia professor Patty Gowaty. "People said I must be nuts or made it up," says Gowaty, who coined the term "Darwinian feminism" in the early 1990s while helping organize a conference and related textbook on the subject.
Today, of course, "cuckoldry" in nature is widely understood. New genetic testing at Jane Goodall's Gombe station has revealed that half the chimps there were sired by strangers outside the group. And the old stereotype of the male as an aggressive cad has also taken a beating with myriad counterexamples, such as male pata monkeys who fear the females and muriqui monkeys who patiently line up for sex, or males from many other species who tend to their young.
Indeed, the fathering instinct may go deeper than realized, according to a recent multi-university study in Kenya showing that baboon dads recognize and then protect their genetic offspring, even though females mate with many partners. "It's something we never dreamed of," says UCLA anthropology professor Joan Silk. "We didn't think [baboon] males had very much confidence about paternity-just like humans."
So what does that mean for us humans? Feminist researchers say their main concern is showing the diversity of human and animal experience. "Feminists are interested in variation. We resist essentialism," says Gowaty. "If everybody is already fixed with a trait, then there is no possibility of evolution. That's where we begin our studies."
Finding such variation has been the aim of University of Michigan psychologist Barbara Smuts, whose studies link widespread sexual coercion in the animal world with human rape, showing how strong female bonding and egalitarian male relationships may reduce or prevent the incidence of such dangers. "Understanding how we got this way can help us change it," she says. "We are attempting to use science for political ends."
But so is everybody else. That's why evolutionary arguments provoke controversy all along the political spectrum, from creationists who deny we're descended from apes to leftists who believe that human culture and morality transcend nature. While Susan Brownmiller's Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (Simon &C Schuster, 1975) redefined rape as an act of male power and domination-not biology or sex-she still finds the Darwinian feminists thought-provoking.
"It would be very hard to make the leap from animal to human behavior, but it's awfully interesting," Brownmiller says. "These women are very brave to raise questions about motherhood and female alliances."
JESSICA SEIGEL is a contributor to magazines ranging from Folio to Archaeology; she also teaches journalism at NYU.
Copyright Liberty Media for Women Spring 2005