Bonobo Liberals? Chimp Conservatives?

Concerning a study of bonobo altruism, this was in The New York Times recently:

The subjects were all orphaned bonobos at the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In one phase of the study, bonobos were given a pile of food, then given the opportunity to release a stranger or a group mate (or both) from other rooms.

The bonobos chose to release strangers and share their food. Not only that, but the just-released bonobo would then release the third.

“This was shocking to us because chimpanzees are so xenophobic,” Mr. Tan said. “They won’t approach a stranger unless they outnumber them.”

The apes did have a limit — they would not share their own food when no social interaction was involved.

They were, however, willing to help a stranger get food even without social interaction. Mr. Tan compared this to certain human acts of kindness.

Think about this. These are our primate cousins. We share a common ancestor with both of them, and chimps are xenophobic while bonobos are open. Talk about red state/blue state!

And think about being a participant in this experiment. You’ve got a feast before you all to yourself (a pile of food). And you can see that your rivals for the food are locked away from you in other rooms. You are utterly secure.

The rational response is to say “Sod them” and chow away.

But a bonobo doesn’t do this. Just like a liberal is a humanist, a bonobo is a bonoboist: she appears to feel bad for her fellow bonobos qua bonobos, imagining what it’s like to be locked away in a room without food. And she doesn’t like to eat alone. She wants company when eating. So she unlocks her door and lets her neighbor in. And then that neighbor unlocks other doors and invites in others. Pretty soon they’ve got a love-in, like at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life.

Meanwhile, the xenophobic chimp, in her red alarm state, dines alone:



I’m a bit conflicted about the bonobo-chimp divide. I find, for example, the above book cover sad, but understandable. All cells have walls, but those walls also have to be permeable, letting the right amount of good things in while keeping the right amount of bad things out. Otherwise, the cell becomes a prison and the organism dies. So I suppose you’ve got to have both the bonobo and the chimp in you to be human. It’s the tension between Dionysus and Apollo.

Still, the below scene of bonobos in full bonobo mode can make me cry.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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13 Responses to Bonobo Liberals? Chimp Conservatives?

  1. Staffan says:

    It’s ironic that the chimps used to be the liberals. Then it turned out they were violent and there was only dolphins, a sort of new agey liberals, left. Then they turned out to be rapists. Now the bonobo take their place. Until some skeleton falls out of their closet and the hunt for the Noble Savage continues.

    Also, in reference to psychiatric terminology that I mentioned earlier, there is no opposite of xenophobia.

    But yes, the walls do need to be permeable. There are good things and bad things to embrace or reject. I’m sure you have noticed that the changing demographics in your country has increased the pro-life and anti-gay opinion. At some point in the future you may start to think that you want your country back – just like those resentful conservative white chimps.

  2. David Yates says:

    Oh, brother. Here is the smug, self-righteous, pseudo-superiority of the left-wing liberal in full display. By all measureable standards conservatives are more giving, charitable, and generous with their time, money, and even blood than are liberals. I’m not going to toot my own horn here, but I can virtually guarantee that I could take a random sample of any dozen people in my conservative, evangelical church and they would both give and volunteer more and more often than any dozen liberals either of you could pick out of a crowd of Democrats (or NDPers, as the case may be). The analogy is frankly silly to begin with, but if anything, the bonobos are conservatives and it’s the chimps that are liberals.

    • Staffan says:

      Liberals give in taxes rather than donations. In fact, liberal nations give so much in tax that they achieve a higher level of economical equality than more conservative nations. I would even say they suffer from a pathological altruism in which the walls are not only permeable but wide open.

      • David Yates says:

        LOL!! “Liberals give in taxes”?!? That’s not giving! (I can hardly believe you actually posted a claim like this. Besides that, as if conservatives don’t pay taxes, as well.) Giving is voluntary or it’s not giving at all. Try not paying your taxes and you’ll quickly see there’s absolutely nothing voluntary about it. How can anybody be said to be truly generous when, if they didn’t “give,” they’d be thrown in jail?!?

        As to your claim regarding “economic equality,” who cares about economic equality? That should only be a concern if wealth is a zero-sum good, where some people getting richer necessarily makes other people poorer, which is nonsense.

        Beyond that, I have no idea what you’re talking about when you get into “permeable” walls versus ones that are “wide open.” (Wouldn’t that be called a doorway?)

    • Bradley says:

      This isn’t about tooting horns. It’s a simple fact that chimps are xenophobic, like conservatives, and bonobos aren’t, like liberals. Conservatives are very clearly anti-immigration, anti-globalization, anti-anything that isn’t the in-group. And you might say “well not all Conservatives, I know plenty that are open and altruistic”. That doesn’t matter. The GOP and the Conservatives in power are the ones pushing for xenophobia and nationalism. So if you identify as a conservative and vote conservative, that’s what you’re supporting regardless of how you act on a day to day basis. Conservatives also work to uphold the patriarchy, just like how chimps are patriarchal, whereas liberals are constantly rejecting it. So I think the chimp, bonobo comparison is an apt one.

  3. Staffan says:

    Voting for politicians that favor higher taxes is volontary.

    Economic equality is a concern for those who care about the welfare of all citizens.

    That was from the OP.

    • David Yates says:

      Wow! I had no idea! I don’t need to donate my hard-earned (after tax) money to charity, or sponsor children overseas, or volunteer at a homeless shelter and local food bank. And I can tell my wife and children that they can cease all their volunteer activities, too. Because according to you, in order to be charitable, all I need to do is vote for some smarmy politician who advocates confiscating even more of the money people have earned because he or she thinks they know how to better spend it than they do. After all, haven’t govts already proven over and over again that they can always be counted on to spend taxpayer dollars wisely and efficiently?

      So, in other words, you regard yourself as charitable simply because you vote for ‘tax and spend’ liberals. That’s some pretty cheaply attained virtue there, Staffan.

      The fact is, there’s only four ways to spend money:
      1. You can spend your own money on yourself.
      2. You can spend your own money on other people.
      3. You can spend other people’s money on yourself. Or…
      4. You can spend other people’s money on other people.

      Under the first scenario, whatever you’re spending money on, you want a good deal, you want good quality, and you’re obviously not going to get yourself something you don’t actually want.

      Under the second scenario, you definitely want a good deal, but you’re not quite so choosey when it comes to quality, and depending on how close those other people are to you, you may not necessarily care too much that they actually want what you’re getting them.

      With the third scenario, you don’t care nearly so much about getting a good deal, but you still want good quality, and you’re still going to get something you want, but are not as concerned about it being something you really need.

      Finally, with the fourth scenario (which makes up about 95% of all govt spending), you don’t care about getting a good deal, you couldn’t care less about quality, and again, if those other people aren’t close to you, you couldn’t give a rat’s behind as to whether or not they need or even want what you’re getting them.

      Staffan, nobody is going to be as careful with your money as you are — especially not a liberal politician. Let’s face it, it’s fun to spend money, and it’s especially fun to spend other people’s money. And, it’s positively addictive when you get praised for doing so by people such as yourself, who think that merely voting for them makes you generous and charitable. I’m sorry, but that’s honestly pretty sad.

  4. Staffan says:

    First off, I can see that you’ve given up on your ambition not to blow your own horn. Oh, those smug liberals…

    Your argument boils down to two things; taxes is other people’s money, and it’s an inefficient way of helping.

    While taxes may be other people’s money it is also your own money. So it’s being generous if you are a net contributor. On the other hand, voting for a party that will give you 200 dollars by lowering taxes and then giving 25 dollars to charity to what that 200 was supposed to finance, well that’s greed. Both systems can be used and abused.

    As for inefficiency, that was not something I talked about in my original comment, so it’s a bit of a diversion. But anyway, efficiency of government funding needs to be compared to the effeciency of charity. Your argument rests on the assumption that spending your own money ensures more efficiency than spending someone else’s and that no other factors could overrule this. That’s a pretty big assumption. I can think of a lot of factors that could affect the efficiency – the charity could be a fraud, it could be underfinancing in the way I described above, those giving could lack the competence needed etc.

    It’s also clear that states that go for charity have the most poverty, like Alabama or Mississippi, as opposed to low charity/high tax states like Massachusets or Connecticut.

    • David Yates says:

      RE: blowing my own horn. At least I have a trumpet to blow, and don’t have to appeal to an argument that basically amounts to, “I consider myself more generous and caring than all you heartless conservatives, not because I actually give to or do anything for the poor, but because I vote for politicians that are going to tax the hell of the people who do actually give to and do things for the poor.” Yeah, that makes sense.

      “Net contributor”? So simply working and earning money makes you generous? (I thought it was voting for ‘tax-and-spend’ liberals that made you generous.) As to the rest of this particular paragraph, Staffan, I’m afraid your argument here is more than a little convoluted, confused, and consisting of unwarranted assumptions. For one thing: “…voting for a party that will give you $200 by lowering taxes…”? This illustrates a major problem with left-wing liberals: lowering taxes isn’t GIVING you money. It’s your money to begin with, not the govt’s. Them lowering tax rates merely means they’re, at least at the moment, relaxing their coercive powers to the effect that they will not confiscate quite as much of YOUR earnings. Second, only a liberal could argue their way into claiming that somebody GIVING $25 to charity is akin to greed on the part of the donor. And finally, who determined that that given govt project or program needed that $200 of your money? A politician? A govt bureaucrat? In that case, given the fact that they’re operating under scenario #4 (as I explicated in my previous post), I can virtually guarantee that in the private sector, the purpose of that project or program would have been accomplished faster, more efficiently, and at a much lower cost — probably closer to around… ohhh, $25. (After all, we’ve just experienced the most left-wing president the U.S. has ever had blow through roughly $6,000,000,000,000 in four years, to no noticeable effect or benefit. When he first took office, unemployment was at 7.8%. At his second inauguration, four years — and $6 trillion — later, unemployment was at 7.8%. The number of unemployed Americans in Jan. 2009, 12 million. The number in Jan. 2013? 12.2 million. The Workforce Participation Rate in Jan. 2009, 65.7%. In Jan. 2013? 63.6% A drop of 2.1%, which in real numbers translates into a drop of 8.3 million workers. The average price of gas per gallon in Jan. 2009, $1.84. The price in Jan. 2013? $3.30, for an increase of 79%! Food stamp recipients in the U.S. in Jan. 2009, 32 million. In Jan. 2013? 46.7 million, for an increase of 46%. The number of Americans living in poverty in Jan. 2009, 39.8 million. In Jan. 2013? 49.1 million, up 9.3 million, or 23%. The average value of a U.S. home in Jan. 2009, $172,100. In Jan. 2013? $180,600, up a measly 5% in four years. All this after Obama and his fellow Democrats spent nearly $6 trillion?!? To have spent $6 trillion and have basically nothing to show for it — and to have made several factors actually significantly WORSE!!! — THAT takes some talent.)

      RE: inefficiency. No, you didn’t mention the subject of inefficiency in your comment. Rather, you went on to talk about “permeable walls” versus “wide open” ones and whatnot. Nevertheless, the subject became relevant to the discussion when you claimed your paying taxes as your means of charitable giving. That being said, comparing the colossal inefficiencies and overall waste of taxpayer dollars by govt (see paragraph above) with the relative efficiency of various private charities is seriously no contest whatsoever. (And when it comes to fraud, I admit you definitely have a point there. After all, no politicians have ever been guilty of fraud.) But I don’t even need to go into that. What’s most pertinent here is the simple fact that, if I don’t like the way a given charity is using the money I’ve donated, I can easily switch to another charitable organization. And if that initial charity persists in being inefficient and/or fraudulent, chances are good that they’ll eventually go out of business. However, such is certainly not the case when it comes to govt agencies; I obviously don’t have the option of not paying my taxes, and no matter how bad they are, it’s exceedingly rare that they ever get shut down. (Indeed, most often its failure is blamed on “underfunding” and more of our money is simply thrown at it.)

      RE: your final paragraph. LOL! Is it seriously your contention that there’s higher poverty rates in states like Alabama or Mississippi BECAUSE the people there are MORE charitable?!? And that the converse is therefore also true in states like Massachusetts and Connecticut? And more than that, but that such results are “clear”?!? Staffan, THAT is honestly hilarious!

      • Staffan says:

        David: if you want to do straw men like that then you are talking to yourself. I will only reply to what I actually said or anything that follows to it. I haven’t expressed an opinion about my own generosity since I haven’t talked about myself, only you did that. The fact that you still haven’t read the OP so that you can understand what I meant by permeable walls make me less inclined to continue this. If you don’t listen it’s just you talking to yourself. Have fun with that.

      • dcyates says:

        If you’re not going to be honest with me, Staffan, at least be honest with yourself: You’re not replying because you can’t. I’ve responded to practically everything of any significance that you’ve proffered in each of your posts. However, the same cannot be said of you. It was your argument that — and I quote — “Liberals give in taxes rather than donations” and it was that to which I responded. It’s not my fault that (and I’m honestly sorry to be this blunt) it’s a fatuous argument on its face. Moreover, it’s a seriously flawed and indefensible position and I suppose I can understand that you’re having trouble coming to terms with that fact.

  5. Luke says:

    Staffan- you would be much more credible if you could provide evidence that voters are willing to see their own taxes raised. Most people are more than happy to let others pay more taxes- the wealthy, big corporations, smokers, etc. Having everyone pay their “fair share” means taxing the other guy.

    • Staffan says:

      It’s true that a lot of people will vote for whoever is most financially beneficial to them, and this hold for both parties. All I’m saying is that a lot of people who voted for Obama could have gained a lot financially by voting Republican instead. Certainly those who have a household income of 100K or more (of which 45 percent voted on Obama). That constitutes a form of generosity, paying higher taxes for the benefit of others.

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