A brief history of ‘marriage,’ part 5

Promiscuous primates

Did Bronislaw Malinowski’s conception of “a primeval and unchanging one-man, one-woman” marriage emerge 5, 6, 7 or 8 million years ago along with the emergence of our hominin ancestors?

We don’t think so. Our nearest relatives in the present day, our fellow great apes, show no such organizational form for purposes of sexual release, reproduction or otherwise.

While it’s impossible to know for sure, we don’t think their ancestors did so either, those millions of years ago when the hominin lineage split off: “Genetic data tell us that the last common ancestor of humans, gorillas, and chimpanzees lived between 9 and 8 mya [million years ago] and the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees lived about 7 to 5 mya.” (“How Humans Evolved” by Robert Boyd and Joan Silk. New York: Norton, 2012, p. 216) In all likelihood, as with the many demonstrable anatomical similarities, early hominins would have had behavioral similarities to their primate relatives.

Jon Cohen’s detailed report on his investigation of the ongoing scientific research in the field of primatology, “Almost Chimpanzee” (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010), ends on a personal and provocative note: “It was early afternoon, and I was sitting against a tree and resting from a long morning of chimping [observing and recording chimpanzee behavior in a natural setting] while more than a dozen chimpanzees scattered about me in a midday siesta, reclining with one hand behind the head, picking through one another’s hair, playing with their babies, quietly digesting food and thoughts from a busy morning foraging. It was as though I had stumbled into a group of ancient humans. It was as though I was almost a chimpanzee myself.” (pp. 314-315)

Jared Diamond, in “The Third Chimpanzee” (New York: Harper Perennial, 1992), summarizes social relations among some of our primate relatives: “Adult orangutans are solitary; adult gibbons live as separate monogamous, male-female pairs; gorillas live in polygamous harems, each consisting of several adult females and usually one dominant adult male; common chimpanzees live in fairly promiscuous communities consisting of scattered females plus a group of males; and pygmy chimpanzees [bonobos] form even more promiscuous communities of both sexes.” (p. 70)

Obviously, there’s no trace of “traditional marriage” among these primates, except perhaps among gibbons, a distant cousin of ours.

But there’s intriguing, detailed information on the mating habits of our two closest genetic relatives. The chimpanzees and the bonobos live disparate social/sexual lives. Their mating habits are in almost diametrical opposition.

While both species are promiscuous, both pre-eminent primatologist Frans de Waal (in “Our Inner Ape.” New York: Riverside Books, 2005) and Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson, the authors of “Demonic Males” (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996), comment at length on the violence sometimes accompanying male chimpanzee approaches to females in estrus — periods of sexual receptivity. An interested male’s violence may include fights with other interested males and/or coercion, including kicking, slapping and slamming an unwilling female. “Male attacks on females, so consistent and regular an aspect of chimpanzee life, might best be described by the term ‘battering.’” (Wrangham and Peterson, p. 145)

De Waal notes similar behavior but is somewhat more cautious about generalizing. Reporting on observations made in the Kibale Forest in Uganda, he writes: “The copycat spreading of this ugly habit shows the extent to which apes are socially influenced. They often follow the example of others. We should be careful not to jump to conclusions about the ‘naturalness’ of such behavior. Chimpanzee males are not programmed to beat females.” (p. 122)

To be cautious about overgeneralizing in any context is good advice, but on this issue it’s important to note what Jane Goodall, the first primatologist to make in-the-wild observations of chimpanzees, wrote when describing male coercive behavior in Tanzania’s Gombe National Park: “Almost always … an adult male can coerce an unwilling female into copulating with him.” (“The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior.” Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986, p. 481)

Whatever the severity or extent of misogyny in chimpanzee groups, the contrast with male-female relations in bonobo groups could not be more dramatic. Contrasting with the dominant, or alpha males, in chimp society, groups of females are the dominant social force in bonobo society. Wrangham and Peterson tell us: “[Bonobos] are fascinating especially because of their remarkable females, who are in several ways more humanlike than female chimpanzees. Bonobos present an extraordinary counterpoint to chimpanzees. … They have evolved ways to reduce violence that permeate their entire society.” (p. 26)

De Waal cites the observation of Japanese bonobo expert Takayoshi Kano that “food is exactly what female dominance is all about.” De Waal notes: “The collective rule of female bonobos is well-known at zoos, and fieldworkers must have begun to suspect the same years before. But no one wanted to be the first to make such an outrageous claim, given how much male dominance is taken for granted in human evolution. Until 1992, that is, when scientists presented findings that left little doubt about bonobo girl power. One report looked at food competition in zoos, documenting how a male chimp living with two females will claim everything for himself, whereas a bonobo male under the same circumstances may not even be able to get near the food. He can make as many charging displays as he wants, but the females ignore the commotion and divide the food among themselves.

“In the wild, an alpha female bonobo will stride into a clearing dragging a branch behind her, making a display that is avoided and watched by all others. It’s not unusual for female bonobos to chase off the males, laying claim to the large fruits they divide among themselves.” (pp.66-67)

With regard to physical violence, male bonobos clearly benefit from the dominance of the females, writes de Waal: “Bonobo societies include equal numbers of males and females, whereas chimp societies often include twice as many females as males. Since both species have a one-to-one sex ratio at birth, and since there are no roaming males outside the community, chimp males must suffer extraordinary mortality. This is hardly surprising, given the intercommunity warfare of this species as well as the injuries and stress associated with continuous power struggles. The upshot is that male bonobos lead longer, healthier lives than their [violence-prone] counterparts.” (pp. 68-69)

While male violence, including rape, in pursuit of sexual intercourse is common among chimpanzees and other apes, bonobo sex, while frequent, energetic and imaginative, is decidedly peaceful.

Jared Diamond explains: “Unlike common chimps but like us, pygmy chimps [bonobos] assume a wide variety of positions for copulation, including face to face; copulation can be initiated by either sex, not just by the male; females are sexually receptive for much of the month, not just for a briefer period in midmonth; and there are strong bonds among females or between males and females, not just among males.” (p. 22)

Jon Cohen is more graphic: “I live about thirty miles from the San Diego zoo, which hosts one of the few communities of captive bonobos anywhere in the world. I visit the bonobo exhibit frequently, and more often than not, I see males humping males, males and females engaging in ‘missionary position’ coitus, or two females genito-genital rubbing their crotches.” (p. 254)

De Waal comments: “The French kiss is the bonobo’s most recognizable, humanlike erotic act. Whenever I show an undergraduate class a film of my bonobos, the students get very quiet. … Invariably the deepest impression is made by a video clip of two juvenile males tongue-kissing.” (p. 90)

Criticized for overemphasizing “unconventional” sexual behavior, de Waal’s rejoinder was short and to the point: “When bonobos contact each other with their genitals (and squeal and show other signs of apparent orgasm), any sex therapist will tell you that they are ‘doing it.’” (Cohen, p. 257)

It is, of course, a huge, imponderable leap from the social/sexual behavior of contemporary primate relatives of ours to the ancestors of these primates 6 million years ago, and then a further speculative leap to draw a comparison of their presumed social/sexual behavior with that of our own hominin ancestors at that remote stage of our evolution, whether we take for our chosen model typical bonobo or typical chimp behavior. Cohen writes, “Bonobos and chimpanzees, after all, are equidistant to humans on the evolutionary tree. So an alpha male chimp that dominates the females in a group is just as related to us as the bisexual bonobo female who dominates males in hers.” (p. 254)

What we can say with certainty is: There’s no sign of “traditional marriage” among our closest relatives. Their sexual lives are characterized by promiscuity.

In the next installment, we’ll move on to anthropological and archeological speculation on the lives of early hominins, the apes who walked on two feet.

McCubbin is the author of “The Roots of Lesbian and Gay Oppression: A Marxist View,” New York: ­—World View Forum, 3rd ed., 1993. To order: send $10 to World View Forum, 147 W. 24th St., 2d floor, NY, NY 10011, with name and address. Or order at Amazon.com