Are We Not Apes? (VIDEO)

11/08/2011 07:07 pm ET | Updated Jan 08, 2012

In introducing this week's topic, I fear that my language may have painted something of a false dichotomy. Are we "just" wild animals, or are we somehow separate from the many species with whom we share planet Earth? I often find myself guilty of stratifying the human experience far above that of "lesser" creatures, an exercise which can frankly be taken to a dangerous extreme when the sanctity of life is in question.

Stephen Jay Gould elegantly asks, "Why should our nastiness be the baggage of an apish past and our kindness uniquely human? Why should we not seek continuity with other animals for our 'noble' traits as well?"

When reading the comments from yesterday's video post, I noticed a common theme unfolding. We can learn more about ourselves--and yes, we ARE apes--if we study our closest living animal relatives, the bonobos and the chimpanzees of the Pan genus. Of the five living great apes (humans, gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, and bonobos), we share the highest DNA complement with chimps and bonobos (we only differ by about 1-2%). To put that in perspective, we are closer to these ape relatives than they are to gorillas, closer than a dog is to a fox, or even an African elephant is to an Indian elephant. In fact, we (Homo) are thought to have diverged from Pan genus only 4-5 million years ago, an eyeblink in the grand evolutionary scheme of things.*

In an effort to scientifically explore our own sexuality, it seems neglectful to exclude scrutiny into that of our extant ape cousins. And although chimpanzees and bonobos are practically equivalent in terms of our shared DNA compliment, they are NOT the same species by any stretch. They diverged from one another less than 1 million years ago, probably along the division of the Congo river, and the bonobo genome diverges from the chimpanzee genome by about 0.4%. The biggest difference observed behaviorally between the two species is that of aggression and violence. Chimpanzees are male dominant, and they have been observed to use tools, hunt in groups, and display lethal aggression against neighboring chimp groups. Bonobos, on the other hand, are a female dominant species that has never been observed to engage in war-like behavior. They are cooperative and seem to solve most disputes through sexual behavior, so much so that primatologist Frans de Waal has dubbed them the "make love, not war" apes.

Here is a remarkable video where de Waal comments on bonobo sexual behavior. Bear in mind that this video contains footage of bonobos having sex in the wild.

How do you think we compare to our ape relatives? What does studying the behavior of other great apes tell us about our own sexuality?

*For those who are interested, I have been reading "Sex at Dawn" by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, at the recommendation of multiple commenters. I've mosty been using it for reference purposes, skipping around to necessary parts, but I've now begun to read this one in full. I recommend it.

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