All animal societies – and also human societies — can be essentially reduced to the organizational dynamic of one of two kinds of monkey: a chimpanzee or a bonobo, known as a dwarf chimpanzee, a variety derived from the other branch of the chimp genetic tree.
Common-or-garden chimpanzees order themselves into a dominant hierarchy, with usually the largest and most aggressive male in charge. He gets first tabs on food and other resources and also first choice of reproductive access to the females. He reinforces his control both with might — periodic fights and contests of strength — and intimidation — elaborate rituals to remind the rest of the group exactly who is in charge (is boss).
In any game pitting a chimp against another chimp, it is usually a zero sum game. The chimp plays to win – at all costs.
Make love, not war
Bonobos, on the other hand, are the hippies of the ape community —
loving, equal opportunity, devil may care. Bonobos societies are matriarchical and maintain sexual equality — females even eat first — and groups of bonobos rarely enter into conflict with outsiders.
A bonobo’s motto is make love, not war, and bonobos are almost absurdly promiscuous – having it off with any one of either sex at any time, graced with a sophisticated sexual repertoire (bonobos even know how to French kiss), endowed with the belief that dinner without a bit of sex beforehand is like a three-course meal without the right wine.
To a bonobo, sex is not a form or dominance or a genetic imperative so much as a means of arbitration, used to resolve conflict and signal friendship and maintain social equilibrium. Sex is the bonobo’s equivalent of ‘I’m okay, you’re okay’, and even used as a variation on ‘hello’ — to diffuse tension when a roaming male strays into a foreign community.
Food sharing is the other social glue, and when food is found, a banquet spread is laid out and the neighborhood invited round, like an Italian family christening on a Sunday afternoon. Chimps maintain social cohesion through a top-down power hierarchy; bonobos generally maintain their society through cooperative teamwork and through caring, in the form of sex and food — in that order.
The more equal, the healthier
For their recently published book, Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Always Do Better, authors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett spent more than 30 years examining why certain human societies live longer and healthier than others. They concluded that human societies as well fall into either the chimp or the bonobo camp.
But what we were meant to be, according to our genetic coding, is more akin to bonobo than chimp, and it is our disparity in the West between what we should be – equal and loving – and what we are – isolated and competitive – that causes our societal problems.
As they researched the social conditions of virtually every Western country, Wilkinson and Pickett discovered that the more unequal and hierarchical any society, the worse off everyone is — both rich and poor — in terms of virtually every social problem.
Divided we fall
In countries of the very rich and with giant income disparity, both the most affluent and the very poorest suffer from higher rates of ill health, higher crime rates, mental illness, environmental problems and violence. The UK, the US and many countries in Europe, with their vast difference between rich and poor, are among the worse off in virtually every social indicator than countries like Sweden, with less wealth disparity in the population.
We are better off in every way when living in some crude approximation to bonobo society and not in a mode of constant competition.