Monkey see, monkey screw

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If you don't remember Ciccolina, it's because you never saw her. A giantess with ass-length platinum hair, usually adorned with a crown of flowers, Ciccolina was a member of the Italian Parliament who came to politics from a career as a porn actress. She had deeply held political beliefs, such as "War I no like; nude, I like." She offered to have sex with Saddam Hussein if he would get out of Iraq. It didn't work, but think about solving international conflict with bombshells instead of bombs. It's just so ... Austin Powers.

From the once-beautified floor of the Italian government we go deep into the jungle of Zaire and a species of ape that thinks pretty much along the same lines as Ciccolina. Bonobos are so like chimps that they were thought to be the same species until primatologists noticed some gaps. Bonobos are more delicate, make different sounds and, unlike the chimps, they rarely fight, don't brandish weapons or commit infanticide. And they have sex all the time. All the time. They do it to procreate, to relax, to appease, to celebrate, in every possible combination as well as by themselves. Bonobos are the Sex Addicts Anonymous of the animal world. They also share 98 percent of our DNA.

The lay of the land

Now don't lie -- whether it's Monica Lewinsky's ability to identify the president's penis in a lineup or gossip about your friends, sex is always the cock of the walk as far as entertaining subjects go. And the Club Med lifestyle of the bonobo is damn entertaining. But according to an in-depth book, "Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape," by Frans de Waal and Frans Lanting, there's a great deal more to them that's important to us, aside from them being another creature whose lifestyle we can watch with envy on television.

The most curious point about bonobos concerns their place in evolution, a theory we'll assume you buy into. If you don't, if you think instead that God was bored and unfulfilled and wanted something to love so he made some people -- in other words, we're here because God was thinking along the same lines as the pregnant 14-year-olds on the Jerry Springer Show -- this stuff won't interest you.

Humans, bonobos and chimps share a common lineage, but, for lots of reasons, bonobos went unnoticed and chimps, who also share 98 percent of our DNA, were considered our closest relatives. Chimps are loud, violent, aggressive. They beat up on their own kind, make tools, live in male-dominated societies, are political and have a humanlike sense of self-awareness. The connection was made stronger when the fossil of a crucial missing link was found to have belonged to a bloodthirsty monster. This theory of relativity was popularized during war time, when people were seeing the most abysmally violent traits of their species, making it easy to believe brutality and cruelty were in their genes. The self-image seemed to stick.

Then, out of the closet and into the street comes the kindred bonobo with female-dominated societies that are largely uncompetitive and nonviolent and exhibit high intelligence, although not through tool use. Their intellect comes from their sympathy and empathy -- anticipating what their pals are feeling and acting accordingly, which contributes to bonding, enhances group strength and safety and keeps the peace, things we do as well, but which didn't go into our hopper of self-image like violence in chimps.

Aping behavior

If you haven't seen anything but the Three Stooges, it's hard to imagine how your taste and style would have been different if you had been exposed only to Woody Allen. If we had been able to see the cooperation, free sexuality, female-leading and general serenity of the bonobos and to identify it as a trait within ourselves alongside the war-mongering and male dominance of chimps, we might have viewed our past and handled our future differently.

In light of these newfound relations, one theory suggests that in the genetic jambalaya, some of us got more chimp and some of us got more bonobo. You see the guy screeching himself into heart-attack country by yelling at his kid at a Little League game, to the detriment of the other kids and antagonism of the group as a whole, but who still can fix your air-conditioner? That one is full of chimp. You see a guy who can't work a tire gauge but can smooth-talk someone else into doing it for him, is pleasant to be around, easy to talk to and sees relationships as matters of fun and love and not just power plays? That one's got a lot of bonobo in him. Most people are probably a combination, but if you look hard enough, you can see which side of the jungle you lean toward.

Personally, I envy the bonobos and wish we had known about them earlier so that we could have adhered a bit more closely to their standard of living. All they do is eat, sleep and screw around all day, and the women control the food. If people lived more like this, fewer things would get done, but we'd all be so relaxed who would care? According to the authors, Pacific Islanders were a very highly sexualized people until Victorian society came and brought them morals -- and venereal disease. They -- and maybe all of us -- would have been better off if they had told them to go screw themselves.

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