If we evolved, we must be animals. But what kind of animal?
All animal species have their own genetically predisposed pattern of behaviour. In other words, each species has its own "Deep Nature". In this episode we look at the behaviour of a small number of animal species to work out how and why each animal behaves as it does, so that we can go on, in future episodes to discover what kind of deep nature our own species might have.
This episode includes adult content.
Artwork by Conner Griffin: The Plain Creative Agency.
Music: Land of Destiny, from Premium Beat.
Episode Six: Diving into Deep Nature
I almost feel the need to apologise for these next three episodes before you listen to them. Why? Because they are likely to be the most controversial and challenging of them all.
In other parts of our journey of understanding there were times when I had to add caveats to the case I made. In this episode the caveats need to come first. This is because I am going to break one of the principal unwritten rules our society demands of us and I need to be clear about why I am doing that, and what exactly I am saying.
As we saw in the last episode, the behaviour of our nearest evolutionary cousin differs radically from ours. But just as chimpanzee’s behaviour differs from humans it also differs from that of each of the other great apes. If the behaviour of one species of animal differs from another, then it follows that the difference must have a genetic basis. It is probably uncontroversial to say that every advanced species on the planet has its own particular pattern of behaviour: uncontroversial that is as long as humans are not included in the list. If we do have such a genetically mediated pattern of behaviour it seems to be deeply embedded and hidden from contemporary cultural awareness. It is for this reason I have called the collection of thoughts and feelings that underpin the human behavioural repertoire our “Deep Nature”, and I’ll need use the same term for that of non-human animals too, otherwise I’ll just perpetuate the misunderstanding that humans are not animals.
The idea that people’s behaviour is an expression of their genes is accepted by at least some scientists; there are what they call “human universals”: patterns of thought and behaviour that are common to all, or almost all, human beings. Evolutionary psychologists think of the human mind as being built of a massive number of modules. We have one for love, one for hate etc. And we can think of our Deep Nature as the complete compendium of all these modules.
Traditionally though, the rule that, in humans, we cannot link genes and behaviour is deeply embedded, and it is the one I am forced to challenge. Why is it contentious? I thought Richard Dawkins put this best in a television interview I heard him give many years ago.
As I remember, he said something like: “One of the things Hitler has to answer for, and there are a lot of things he has to answer for, is that we can never talk about behaviour and genes in the same sentence”.
What I took Dawkins to mean was that if we admit that genes influence behaviour then people will say this harks back to a monstrous and repugnant idea that became prevalent in the Nineteenth, and early Twentieth Century, and fed into Hitler’s despicable, Nazi ideology. The idea became known as eugenics. I don’t want this series of podcasts to build into book length, so I’ll need to be brief, but eugenics was based on the idea that some people had good genes, and some had bad genes, and to improve the species we had to get rid of the bad ones. In America, this was done by forcibly sterilising people with learning difficulties and other genetic disorders, and it was taken to an extreme by Hitler who used it as an excuse for his extermination of people he thought of as sub-human such as Jews, gay people, Romanies and people with mental or physical disabilities. Good reason you might think then for opposing the idea of linking genes to behaviour. But if you’ve been following the arguments in these podcasts, you’ll know that these ideas were founded on a radical misunderstanding of how nature works. The natural system, at least the one below the awareness horizon, has no “good” or “bad” genes. As we learned in episode three what matters in the universe is whether someone is a feeling being. A person’s feelings and their right to enjoy them are ultimately what matter. Like all other animals, the indifferent world below our awareness horizon has no consideration for the lives, rights or feelings of the poor creatures living above it. It is we who have to care.
As a student at university, I was told twice that gender is culturally constructed, once, shockingly, by the leader of a science course. The idea that men and women are different because of cultural influence – which seems to be based on the idea that children subliminally absorb messages during their upbringing such as those exemplified in the nursery rhyme: Little boys are made of slugs and snails and puppy dogs tails, while girls are made of sugar and spice and all things nice. When we look around at other closely related animals, the idea that our culture makes us male, and female, just doesn’t work.
In Steven Pinker’s seminal book “The Blank Slate” he challenges the foundation for what he calls the Standard Social Science Model – widely followed in academia – in which it is understood that human beings are completely, or almost completely the product of their environment. In doing so he effectively destroys the myth that we are wholly, or almost wholly, blank slates at birth on which experience writes out our personalities, gender differences and attitudes.
Would we ever say that chimpanzee females are less aggressive than the males due to the difference in chimpanzee culture? Most people would think that idea to be absurd, and yet, by many, it is freely accepted to be the case in human beings.
The disposition for society to hold humankind apart from the rest of nature is a classic example of what I called the Everest Syndrome – the failure to see human beings in their proper context. I want to argue that there is no problem at all in arguing that there are some differences in the way most men and most women see the world. The problem is that unfortunately, human beings are social primates and social primates are obsessed by status. If we agree there is an innate difference between the sexes, then we can’t seem to stop ourselves asking which sex is the better one. And as you’ll no doubt be aware, throughout most of human history, and in many parts of the world today, men just take it for granted that their gender is the best.
In the example of Jane Goodall, we saw that the dispassionate, unemotional, male oriented version of the scientific approach was completely inappropriate in understanding creatures whom, I think, are best described as non-human people. And in this episode, you will find mention of two other exceptional women: Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas. These people are not unconnected, Goodall was sent out to study chimpanzees by the famed paleoanthropologist, and discoverer of some spectacular human fossils, Louis Leakey. And after Goodall’s great success, Leakey supported Fossey, who went to Rwanda to study mountain gorillas, and Galdikas who went to Borneo to study orangutans.
Most men sent out to study apes in the wild would probably have completed their investigations and returned to write up their theses, hopefully to great acclaim and leading to a comfortable seat in a prestigious university where their ongoing, err… primate, status was guaranteed. This is not what happened with these three women. They rightly learned to love these wonderful creatures. Each of the great ape species are threatened with extinction to various degrees, and these women devoted the rest of their lives to conserving and publicising their plight. I won’t give the ending away but if you’ve seen the film, “Gorillas in the Mist” you’ll know how much Dian Fossey sacrificed for her beloved gorillas. Men may have strong points, but women have their own to equal them.
Another massively important point is that, if you’ve been following the arguments in these podcasts, you will know that we are products of the heartless world below our awareness horizon, so because we behave in a certain way, this says nothing about how we should behave. I’ll expand on this idea in the final episode.
An even more important point is that we could never expect every single human being to conform to any postulated human deep nature. What we know about nature is that there is always variation, not only in physical, but in behavioural attributes. This is not just important, it is essential to Darwin’s idea of natural selection – as far as we know, the principle driving force of evolution. The evolutionary process depends on selection between the genetic variants that inevitably occur in any population of organisms. Those who say that, for example, gay people are “not natural” are demonstrating an extremely weak understanding of nature. Because we are the product of natural forces beyond our control and full understanding, we cannot be judgemental about anyone who does not conform to contemporary cultural understandings of what our deep nature is or should be. Again, this is another point to which we will need to return.
All these caveats seem to be almost more important than the central point of the episode, and there is another which needs to be made crystal clear. Perhaps this should be obvious to even the most casual observer of human nature, but I need to spell it out anyway. Here goes: I am not suggesting that we have any kind of genetic determinism; that is to say I am not saying that we are compelled by our genes to act in any particular way. This might be true of the paramecium, where they might well be programmed to behave in a fixed pattern, perhaps not too dissimilar to the way a computer works: if food is detected move towards it which parallels computer algorithms like if x happens do y, etc. While nature has programmed animals that have crossed the awareness horizon with feelings that predispose them to act in certain ways, none of this is fixed. Sometimes the feelings conflict with each other as we’ll see when we come to consider human sexuality. Nor am I saying that cultural evolution – the idea that cultures change and evolve without any suggestion of genetic change – is not real, nor am I denying its massive importance. If I thought that everything about being a human being is fixed and immutable there would be no point in writing these podcasts, because if it were true these podcasts would change nothing, and my dear hope is that they do change the way that people think.
Ok, now the caveats are out of the way, the rest of this episode will be descriptive rather than prescriptive or proscriptive; it will be about how things are, rather than how they should be. As I’ve said more than once, I’ll hold back judgements about how all this impacts on right and wrong until later.
The next part of this episode contains adult content. If there are children listening nearby you might want to ask them to leave the room, or it might lead to awkward questions. In the case I’m presenting here, sex will turn out to have a significant role in our deep nature. It seems as if one of the principal differences between great apes, and here I’m including humans as great apes, is the way they manage their sexual behaviour. I don’t know why these differences are so profound, but my guess would be that because it isn’t enough just to survive in the Darwinian universe, you also need to get your genes into the next generation, and you do that with sex, sex is likely to be highly visible to natural selection, and therefore to evolve faster and more completely than other behavioural attributes.
When you listened to the last episode where we considered the sexual behaviour of chimpanzees, you might have been led to the somewhat disturbing thought of a woman growing a large, warm, smooth, curvaceous, pink swelling on her bottom once a month to advertise her fertility, and this might well have evoked at least some sense of revulsion. It certainly grosses me out. On the other hand, large, warm, smooth, curvaceous breasts, or buttocks, elicit quite a different reaction in at least half of the adult human population. There are any number of therapeutic courses available to those who need them, for all sorts of problems, but there never seems to be a need for breast appreciation classes for young men.
So, it is obvious that there is a different pattern of behaviour in humans and chimps. Above our respective awareness horizons, we respond to the environment in which we find ourselves in different ways. In the rest of this episode, I’ll explore the behaviour of the other great apes, to establish the truth of the uncontroversial idea that all advanced animals have their own deep nature. In the next, we will look down through the awareness horizons of a small number of species, including our own, to answer the more controversial question of why we think and behave as we do.
The first species I’m going to look at is another member of our immediate evolutionary family, a species as genetically close to us as chimpanzees: bonobos. A book about them written by Frans de Waal was subtitled “the forgotten ape”, for the very good reason that this species is far less well known than chimpanzees, this is in part because they have the misfortune to live in a war zone and researchers have had great difficulty in observing them. Bonobos look like a ganglier, kindlier-faced version of the common chimpanzee. Although they used to be known as pygmy chimpanzees they are about the same size as the commoner variety. There seems to be a strong consensus in the scientific community around the view that, unlike in the male-dominant chimpanzee societies, female-dominant bonobos are much less volatile, less violent and more peaceable than chimps. The primatologist, Richard Wrangham, in his book “The Goodness Paradox” tells a story of when two communities of wild bonobos met up, the adults in one group played with the young of those of the other, swinging them high in the trees, amid the delighted squeals of the little ones, while their unconcerned parents looked on approvingly. This is a level of trust that would never be seen in two communities of chimps, who view each other with suspicion and often animosity, and whose mothers are often very protective. Bonobos’ sexual behaviour also differs radically from chimps. The females also have sexual swellings, but they will have sex with any member of their communities regardless of their fertility status, and even their gender.
When we meet a friend, we haven’t seen for a while, we shake hands or perhaps hug. Chimpanzees hug too, and will then often enthusiastically groom each other’s fur, contrasting with the human response which is to enthusiastically chat about what’s happened since they last met. Bonobos do it differently; when they meet someone they haven’t seen for a while, they have sexual intercourse with them. The only sexual taboo in bonobo society seems to be between mothers and their male offspring, which presumably reduces the problems of in-breeding. Status works in a different way in bonobos as compared to how it works in chimps. Sex between female bonobos is used to cement their friendships, and to diffuse aggression between individuals generally. Female bonobos often rub their genitalia against each other and the orgiastic sounds they make suggest they rather enjoy it. Frans de Waal gives an example of their approach to sex in his 2019, book “Mama’s Last Hug”:
“A female may lie on her back masturbating in full view of everyone, and no-one will blink an eye. She moves her fingers rapidly up and down her vulva, but she may also assign a foot to the job, keeping her hands free to groom her infant or consume a fruit. Bonobos are great multitaskers.”
End of quote.
Right… err, I think we can say that bonobos have a much more tolerant and relaxed societal structure than chimps, at least in part due to their easy-going sexual outlook.
It has often been written that bonobos, unlike chimps, have never been observed to kill each other. This turns out to be strictly true, but misleading. One wild male bonobo was severely beaten by the females in his group; he disappeared into the forest and researchers never saw him again. Badly wounded or sick chimpanzees will often retreat into the forest for the very good reason that status is everything in their society and prospects would be particularly bad for them if they stayed in their communities while in a weakened state. For example, David Greybeard disappeared into the bush, one day during a pneumonia epidemic at Gombe, and was never seen again. If bonobos divide themselves off from their communities in the same way, it seems likely that the injured bonobo may well have retreated to lick his wounds and died of his injuries alone in the wilderness. Another male bonobo, at Twycross Zoo in the UK, called Kakowett, who had stopped having sexual relations with the more senior females, was attacked and was so badly beaten that he had to be euthanized by zoo staff because he had collapsed, and his injuries were so severe that he would not have been able to recover from them. These are the only two instances I know of where bonobos may have killed, or come close to killing, each other; there are dozens, if not hundreds of examples of chimpanzees killing each other in captivity as well as in the wild. Bonobos might not be the hedonistic “hippy” apes as they are sometimes portrayed, but it does seem clear that they are certainly very much less volatile than chimps and their behavioural repertoire is radically different from them.
Gorilla behaviour is different again. It is built around a nuclear family, typically consisting of a dominant silverback male, some lower status males, his harem of females and their young. Despite their tough appearance, unless they are facing off against another competing silverback, males are generally non-aggressive. They are gentle, fatherly and caring of their “wives” and offspring. Young female gorillas will move from one silverback to another until they find one they are comfortable with and then they tend to settle down with him for the rest of their lives.
So now we have three different patterns of behaviour in the non-human African apes. But if the behaviour of these species is radically different from each other, the behaviour of the last surviving Asian great ape, the orangutan, is off the scale. There is a question as to whether orangutans are social primates at all. Biruté Galdikas describes them as being “semi-sociable”. They spend much more time high in the tree canopy, they’re more arboreal, and see very much less of each other than any of the African species. One adult male was followed for twenty-three days straight, only encountering three other females during that time and whom he passed by with only the briefest of interest. Orangutans have an enviable self-assurance and self-sufficiency making them less needy. This apparently gives them something of a quiet inner serenity that the other great apes, including humans, seem to lack. Their lowered need for social acceptance means that they are free to be themselves without the need of any pretension. As Galdikas puts it: “Orangutans display an honesty and candour that humans and chimpanzees cannot afford.”
At the beginning of this episode, I invited you to consider whether chimpanzee behaviour engendered any sense of revulsion within you. Now we can reconsider this question in a different light, because now we might ask whether bonobos may think chimps to be sexually repressed, or whether male chimps might think silverback gorillas to be soft and wussy, while orangutans might be looking down from their trees laughing at the lot of us for our childish over-excitability.
It should not be necessary to make this interjection here because I did say at the outset that this part of the episode would be descriptive rather than prescriptive. But in the interests of clarity perhaps I should: I am not suggesting that we should take any lessons from how other great apes, like bonobos, behave, much less tear our pants off and adopt their approach to sex. The only point I am making is that these differences exist, and what I’m trying to do is to understand why they’re different, what’s causing them to be different, and how this might influence the way we think about our own behaviour. That will be the task of the next episode.
Thanks to Clare Redfern and the team at Twycross Zoo, and to you for listening.