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Examining the bonobos

As zoologists and anthropologists solve increasingly more mysteries about the origin of primates in general and our species in particular, I find it interesting that the threads of ethics, morality and social norms seem to grow ever more tenuous, ever frailer. The assertion by most modern religions and people of many cultures and races that morality - right and wrong - is absolute does not seem to hold up to scrutiny when compared to the advances in comparative zoology, particularly when comparing behavior.

Research into the behavior of a very close relative of ours, the bonobo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), indicates that the line between animals and humans is thinner than it has ever been. A recent special on the PBS series Nova ( featuring the chimpanzee-related primate, the Bonobo, illustrates just how close to humans our nearest relative is.

Interestingly, no other great ape except the bonobo, the latter of which nurture their young and show empathy much like humans, knows a gene known for bonding that is found among humans. Empathy, once thought to be a purely human trait and a signature of sentience, is prevalent among the Bonobo. Additionally, the age-old belief that sex purely for pleasure was a trait solely confined to Homo sapiens has also been turned on its head. Although the bonobo, like the closely related chimpanzee, can only become pregnant for a very short period in its sexual cycle, the bonobo are renowned for their sexual activity, using it as both a means of controlling aggression and bonding. It is not unknown to have regular sexual contact between two males, two females, male and female, and adults with adolescents.

Paradoxically, in a society that places great emphasis on sexual morality and rational self-control, we give into sexual affairs and activities contrary to the socially acceptable norms - even going as far as raping, killing and molesting when some individuals can no longer artificially mask and control their pent-up urges by simple mind-control and social pressure. Ironically, those who most vocally advocate "moral" behavior are sometimes the greatest offenders of this moral code. One could easily chalk it up as simple hypocrisy or the influence of "the devil," yet such simplistic explanations fail to address fully this apparent conundrum between what we find our human nature leading us to do and what our society tells us we are to do.

Examining the bonobo, I believe, may provide answers or at least provide material for debate on the subject of absolute morality, of the idea that standards of morality exist outside of human perception that guide what is right and wrong, good and evil. Absolutes. For example, in the animal world - bonobos in particular - we find incidents of homosexuality and multiple sexual partners. Society and religion teaches us that this is evil in humans and leads to some divine retribution on the day of reckoning. Yet why is such sexual behavior acceptable in nature and among the primates but totally unacceptable among humans? What is the root of this moral code we impose upon ourselves through law and social pressure? Is it some absolute standard, handed down to us by some god of whom we can never prove exists or is it a social construct that we humans have created to impose some form of order and control upon the natural world?

Herein lies the rub. If it is indeed a god-inspired edict that transcends space and time, race and culture, then it - as an absolute - must apply to all of us everywhere. We would rule out as false and misleading any subjective standards of morality and ethics. Now, would these unchanging rules of morality apply to just humans, or would it apply to animals or even aliens should they exist somewhere "out there?" Is it acceptable for all of nature to exhibit "immoral" behavior because they are animals or would this god-given set of moral principles guide their behavior as well? If not, then why is all of nature exempt from god's morality except us? If so, then do we consider things such as homosexuality and sexual variance natural since nature obviously exhibits such behavior? Moreover, why does the bible consider it moral to enslave humans, while today we accept such actions as morally reprehensible?

On the other hand, if our standards of morality are subjective - if they are constructs of society and the rules of what each culture considers ethical in any given time of our history - then is it not counter-intuitive to call our natural urges and longings immoral? Why, then, is it wrong to possess things and copulate and live as we feel our hearts guide us individually? Is it perhaps because we feel a need to control other's behavior by instituting a subjective set of moral norms? What are acceptable "norms?" The debate could go on.

I assert that the very fact that morality and social standards change with each generation, with each culture, illustrates the heart of fallibility of the absolutists’ central argument. If god hands morality to us figuratively on a tablet that we all somehow know as right or wrong inside our hearts and minds, then how can humans of different times and cultures vary so widely in their socially accepted norms? Is one culture inherently evil while another is inherently good? This supposition seems preposterous and resembles an extreme self-righteous form of hubris. If right is right and wrong is wrong regardless of the era or culture, then we must, by necessity, confront paradoxes such as the validity - and even instruction - of slavery in the very book that most Western religion is founded upon. Why the contradiction? Why the explanations and rationalizations? If this holy book is indeed erroneous when it concerns the social evil of slavery and indentured servitude, how can we be so certain that the rest of the book contains absolute values that are infallible?

No, in the end, it appears that the discrepancy in logic and inherent textual contradictions cannot be resolved, and where there is no answer to such debates as whether or not there exists absolutes in human behavior, one must either step out in faith and claim to have the answer or face the bitter truth that inherent, moral knowledge cannot be known. Whereas all of nature acts upon it's natural-born desires, we, as part of nature and related imminently to it, should at least consider that moral imperatives and social norms are neither natural nor inherent and that, at heart, human nature is more natural than we currently allow.

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