“We gonna make bonobo love” (with apologies to The Bobs)

Posted on September 1, 2010

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OK, I admit it: I’m one of those old-fashioned anthropologists who had to learn about non-human primates.

Back in the Dark Ages we were told that learning about our closest living relatives would give us some guidance in envisioning what humans would have been like without all the accumulated baggage of culture.

Not that we were unaware of chimpanzee culture; but what chimps had was viewed as somehow more natural.

So when I see headlines like Discover‘s Bonobo males get sex with help from their mums, there’s no way I can resist. It’s the “mums” that really makes that one– so intimate, so friendly. Come for a cuppa, stay for a…

Science online is, well, nastier: Mama’s Boys Get the Girls, it proclaims (or complains). Emphasizing that in the absence of moms, the dominant male gets more sex (40% vs. only 25% when every male’s mother is part of the group), Science managed to take an alpha male view of the whole thing, and left the impression that the lower ranked males were kind of cheating to rely on the “mums”.

But leave it to the mass media to mine the most vulgar of metaphors: msnbc declares, “For bonobo males, mom is best wingman”.

Eureka! Science News must have felt the need to raise the tone a little; “Mothers Matter” is their discreet brown wrapper of a subject line. Do they ever.

The Discover article finds it necessary to clarify that the bonobo “mums” aren’t beating up on the other boys:

mothers are probably using their status to usher their sons into the right spot within the group, allowing them to interact more closely with females. They’re more matchmakers than bodyguards.

That clarification is necessary because many of the news stories over-emphasized what the study’s authors said was a minor or rare factor: mothers chasing other males away, backing up fights between their sons and other males, or “keeping competitors at bay” while their sons mated.

At times, it seems like the authors are more concerned with the human readers than with the bonobo subjects: Science begins its coverage with “Most people don’t want their parents meddling in their sex lives”. Discover starts with “Most human men would be appalled at the idea of their mothers helping them to get laid.”  MSNBC concurs: “To most human males, the thought of your mother anywhere near your sex life is probably horrifying”.

The opinions of the bonobos are not, alas, quoted in any of the stories.

Despite being unclear how mother does it (and isn’t that always the way?), the articles are in no doubt as to why:

To pass on her DNA, a mother bonobo needs grandchildren.

So, what’s a mother to do?

Maybe sing along with The Bobs:

I wanna beat my breast like an ape man
I don't wanna comb my hair
I'll strip down to the waist
And up to the waist
And forget about the underwear
A-huk-a-luk-a-huk-a-luk-a-muck-muck
That's the way I wanna talk
So come on baby, get down on all fours
Let's walk!  Walk!  Walk!

I'm gonna take you to my
Bungalow
In the Jungle-o
We gonna make banana love
You'll sing a high C
Up in the swingin' tree
When we make banana love
Posted in: biology, sexuality