Nonviolence: Zinn, MLK, The Holocaust, and Great Apes

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Bonobo play

Bonobo play: image from http://naturendanger.canalblog.com

Today I sat in on our local college’s, Day of Zinn, a celebration of the life and ideas of Howard Zinn. The theme this year was Nonviolence. I wasn’t able to attend all of the talks, but I did catch some of them. The roughly 15-minute time slots included talks on the violence on our plates (animals, factory farming, etc.), a reading from holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s speech regarding the consequences of indifference to what is happening in the world, readings from Martin Luther King’s speeches, personal stories of prejudice, tragedy, and secrets within a family, and a talk by a Bonobo researcher and anthropology instructor.

I was very interested to hear the talk by Michel Waller, the Bonobo researcher. He gave a short presentation on some of his research and did some comparisons of Chimpanzee versus Bonobo culture. (Now, I’m not an anthropologist, so forgive me if I’ve summarized any of this incorrectly, as I failed to take notes and am commenting on this from memory.) The Chimpanzee culture was very male dominant: all of the males were related and all of the females were not. Infanticide, murder, and other forms of violent aggression existed in the Chimpanzee culture and not in the Bonobo culture. The interesting thing about the Bonobo culture (outside of their socio-sexual behaviors, which I understand to mean that they use sex between everybody and anybody as a means of social lubrication and strengthening community) is that their culture is female dominant: all of the females were related and all of the males were not. As a result, the Bonobo males, unlike the Chimpanzee males, were not constantly trying to expand their territories by killing the neighboring males and infants, and then incorporating the females into their circle. Additionally, where the Bonobos live, they have access to readily available and abundant food sources, whereas the Chimpanzees do not. So the Bonobos do not have the drive to expand their territories for that reason either, whereas the Chimpanzees are constantly at risk of not having enough food. And because the Bonobos have plenty of food, they also have the luxury of sharing, which is rarely observed in Chimpanzee culture.

Bonobo family

Bonobo family: image from http://naturendanger.canalblog.com

What does this mean for humans and the chance of creating a nonviolent society? It seems that human cultures reflect a mix of both Chimpanzee and Bonobo cultures. Yes, we tend to act out violently in struggles over resources. But at the same time we are very cooperative. And since violence is not completely determined by biology, and in fact is very culturally determined, then our cultural conditions can have a great influence on our behavior. The key component is resources—and in particular—food. If we put our efforts into feeding everyone, we might very well reduce violence significantly. It sounds good in theory, anyway.

Another study that I was hoping Waller would mention was that of Robert Sapolsky’s peaceful Baboons. He brought this up near the end of the presentation. If you have not heard of Sapolsky or this story, I encourage you to read Sapolsky’s A Primate’s Memoir or read some of his online work. For a fun introduction, listen to this Radio Lab episode. (I had the pleasure of attending a book reading by Sapolsky in California once—he is a very funny man and a great storyteller).

Anyway, the gist of the story is that a Baboon troop that Sapolsky had been studying for years suddenly lost most of the highly aggressive males to bovine tuberculosis, contracted through their continuous raids of a garage pit located adjacent to a tourist lodge. This resulted in a change to the gender composition of the troop, leaving mostly females. Within years, troop behavior had changed dramatically; males became significantly less aggressive. And the change has remained for decades: Males raised with the troop are gentler, and as new males join the troop, they are encouraged to comply with the new social norm, or the are not allowed to stay.

This is another example that raises hope for a nonviolent human society—cultures can change, and they can change rather quickly.

Baboons on rock

Baboon family: picture by Charles J Sharp, from Wikipedia

Another interesting tidbit from Waller’s talk: Somebody asked him if he saw any differences in the diets of Chimpanzees versus Bonobos, for instance, did Bonobos eat a completely plant-based diet? He stated that no, both species ate meat, and both species hunted: In the case of the Bonobos, it was the females who did the hunting. However, he said that meat is a very small part of their diet, from 5-10%. Which is interesting, because I just read in Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat that “Meat makes up only 3 or 4% of a typical chimpanzee’s diet, and even the most voracious chimpanzee meat-eaters only average a couple of ounces a day.” Whichever statistic is correct, it is still a relatively small portion.