What separates man from the beasts? Language? Dolphins would beg to differ. Tools? Even birds can use ’em. Well, at least we’ll always have good old fire, right?

Ah, human exceptionalism. You never fail to fail me.

Bonobos are the sixth member of our “great ape” family, a little-known species because they live only in the Congo, and because zoos refuse to display them, on account of the fact that they are the horniest animals alive. Bonobos have gained a sort of cult following among antropologists and animal aficionados as the “other chimps” we hope we’re more closely related to; while chimpanzees are violent and warlike, bonobos — which are smaller, slighter, and far more bipedal — settle all disputes with sex. All kinds of sex. Male-on-male, male-on-female, female-on-female, male-on-female-on-female-on-male, hanging upsidedown, anal, oral, you name it. If we (by which I mean, “freaky liberals”) look to peaceful, sex-crazy bonobo culture as a model society we could learn from, it turns out that bonobos also can learn a great deal from us. Including how to make and use fire.

In Georgia, a group of researchers have created a sort of wildlife-sanctuary/commune where they’re attempting to create a hybrid human-bonobo culture. Here, Dr. Susan Savage-Rumbaugh talks about the program. The whole 20-minute film is incredible, but for the relevant part, skip to the 5:05 mark.

Behold! Monkey Prometheus!

It’s important to note that nobody taught the bonobos to start fire (or write, or play harmonica or Ms. Pacman) intentionally. These are not trained circus apes. The bonobos watched the humans, inferred and understood the usefulness of such an element, and learned to start fires by imitating us. Of course, there would be no point in a bonobo setting fire to his jungle home; we started using fire as a landscaping tool once we were already fully bipedal and hunting game on foot. But it illustrates a larger point. As Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh points out, it’s not anything in our genes that makes us exceptional. There’s nothing we have that other animals don’t. If a bonobo can learn to start and use fire, there’s no fire-starter gene in us that gives us the edge, no superior intellect. It’s not we who are more evolved, but our culture. Fire, the sacred hearth, which is the centerpiece of our society and the muse of all art and innovation, turns out to have been a gift from our artists and innovators itself.


About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

4 responses to “Firestarters

  • Amanda Kail

    I think my mind was just officially blown.

  • The Quantum Biologist

    […] Cultural Bonding. Many species use sex as a greeting, or to keep the herd emotionally synched. See “bonobos.” […]

  • Lust « The Quantum Biologist

    […] the bonobo, a chimp-like ape which uses constant sex as a means of social bonding. However, since I’ve already written about the bonobo in another context, I’ll have to choose something new. Reproduction being essential for life, […]

  • Thomas Delpierre

    This article, and especialy this video just gave me shivers. I had already heard of the bonobos and of their sexual life and gentle nature, but I am really amazed by what I have just seen, heard and read !
    They seem to be able to learn quite a lot from watching us and we have so much more to learn from them. It just might be a little harder for humans to learn from their hairy little cousins.

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