Love, Aggression and Sex

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Each year Valentines Day rolls around and everyone goes out of their way to show their love for each other. Flowers are purchased, candy is purchased, cards are purchased - okay, so maybe Valentines Day is just an scheme by flower, candy and card companies to make money by playing off our guilt for not showing our love enough the other 364 days of the year. Yet still, we humans do seem to have some genuine love for our fellows, though we seem better at applying it to only a select few members of our immediate circle of interaction than we do to the rest of our species.

Well, if you ask me, we could learn a thing or two from another species out there: meet our cousins the bonobos. These amazing creatures maintain societies with more peace than we (or their larger cousins, the chimps) could ever attain. They fight less often than other large primates, and they are not known to kill members of their own species (unlike humans and other large primates). How do they do it?

One word: sex. And lots of it. Bonobos have been observed to have all sorts of sex - male-female, male-male and female-female - in all sorts of positions, and they do it fairly often. What's interesting though isn't just that they're 'pansexual'. What's interesting is that they use sex to solve conflicts and diffuse potentially violent situations. Some examples from this neat article:

There are two reasons to believe sexual activity is the bonobo's answer to avoiding conflict. First, anything, not just food, that arouses the interest of more than one bonobo at a time tends to result in sexual contact. If two bonobos approach a cardboard box thrown into their enclosure, they will briefly mount each other before playing with the box. Such situations lead to squabbles in most other species. But bonobos are quite tolerant, perhaps because they use sex to divert attention and to diffuse tension. Second, bonobo sex often occurs in aggressive contexts totally unrelated to food. A jealous male might chase another away from a female, after which the two males reunite and engage in scrotal rubbing. Or after a female hits a juvenile, the latter's mother may lunge at the aggressor, an action that is immediately followed by genital rubbing between the two adults.
During reconciliations, bonobos use the same sexual repertoire as they do during feeding time. Based on an analysis of many such incidents, my study yielded the first solid evidence for sexual behavior as a mechanism to overcome aggression. Not that this function is absent in other animals--or in humans, for that matter--but the art of sexual reconciliation may well have reached its evolutionary peak in the bonobo. For these animals, sexual behavior is indistinguishable from social behavior. Given its peacemaking and appeasement functions, it is not surprising that sex among bonobos occurs in so many different partner combinations, including between juveniles and adults. The need for peaceful coexistence is obviously not restricted to adult heterosexual pairs.

One wonders if we humans might avoid a few wars if the leaders of the world would just initiate a little genital rubbing any time international tensions ran high. Okay, maybe not, but there certainly is a lesson to be learned here. Perhaps it's that peace is indeed possible among social lifeforms; sex may just be one way to reach that peace, with others yet to be discovered. Perhaps it's that we humans, for all our sound and fury of 'progress', aren't the peak when it comes to all aspects of society and civilization - a lesson in humility we would do well to learn.

At any rate, hopefully these oh-so-cool endangered neighbors of ours, the bonobos, manage to survive the human war in the Congo region that is their home so that they can continue to provide their peaceful example to us for ages to come.

[On a side note, check out John Varley's novella "Persistence of Vision" for a thoughtful fictional exploration of a human attempt at pansexual life in a semi-utopian commune. It's got some mind-opening material and it's a fun read to boot.]

Originally Written: 02-14-03
Last Updated: 11-14-03