I came across the word “bonobo” for the first time over a decade ago. This African ape, media stories explained, was the gentle, pacifist, feminist relative of the chimpanzee. It didn’t take long before even the New Yorker, hardly a scientific publication, dispelled this absurd media myth, in 2007:
For a purportedly peaceful animal, a bonobo can be surprisingly intemperate. Jeroen Stevens is a young Belgian biologist who has spent thousands of hours studying captive bonobos in European zoos. I met him last year at the Planckendael Zoo, near Antwerp. “I once saw five female bonobos attack a male in Apenheul, in Holland,” he said. “They were gnawing on his toes. I’d already seen bonobos with digits missing, but I’d thought they would have been bitten off like a dog would bite. But they really chew. There was flesh between their teeth. Now, that’s something to counter the idea of”—Stevens used a high, mocking voice—“ ‘Oh, I’m a bonobo, and I love everyone.’ ”
Stevens went on to recall a bonobo in the Stuttgart Zoo whose penis had been bitten off by a female. (He might also have mentioned keepers at the Columbus and San Diego zoos who both lost bits of fingers. In the latter instance, the local paper’s generous headline was “ape returns fingertip to keeper.”) “Zoos don’t know what to do,” Stevens said. “They, too, believe that bonobos are less aggressive than chimps, which is why zoos want to have them. But, as soon as you have a group of bonobos, after a while you have this really violent aggression. I think if zoos had bonobos in big enough groups”—more like wild bonobos—“you would even see them killing.” In Stevens’s opinion, bonobos are “very tense. People usually say they’re relaxed. I find the opposite. Chimps are more laid-back. But, if I say I like chimps more than I like bonobos, my colleagues think I’m crazy.”
On another occasion, Hohmann thinks that he came close to seeing infanticide, which is also generally ruled to be beyond the bonobo’s behavioral repertoire. A newborn was taken from its mother by another female; Hohmann saw the mother a day later. This female was carrying its baby again, but the baby was dead. “Now it becomes a criminal story,” Hohmann said, in a mock-legal tone. “What could have happened? This is all we have, the facts. My story is the unknown female carried the baby but didn’t feed it and it died.” Hohmann has made only an oblique reference to this incident in print.
These tales of violence do not recast the bonobo as a brute. (Nor does new evidence, from Lui Kotal, that bonobos hunt and eat other primates.) But such accounts can be placed alongside other challenges to claims of sharp differences between bonobos and chimpanzees. For example, a study published in 2001 in the American Journal of Primatology asked, “Are Bonobos Really More Bipedal Than Chimpanzees?” The answer was no.
The bonobo of the modern popular imagination has something of the quality of a pre-scientific great ape, from the era before live specimens were widely known in Europe.
Down the stream from the New Yorker, mass media, which is not really good with complex issues like this, decided to ignore the evidence and go full steam ahead, refocusing on the feminist part of the narrative. This short video posted weeks ago in one of the largest Youtube channels is a good example of the trend. Even in prestige media, the trend is clear: as recently as 2016, the New York Times was still running stories about exemplary bonobos:
Last year, somebody took the trouble to publish a deeply-researched book about bonobos where all the touchy-feely myths of the great peaceful ape of the forest are demolished comprehensively. You can see a good review of that book in this website. Here’s hoping somebody in media still read books.
Sometimes, the New York Times reminds me of what Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek once said about Ayn Rand(*): “she spells out the secret premises of the ruling ideology so clearly that they are an embarrassment for the ruling ideology itself.” Ayn Rand is gone, so I suppose the Times has taken on that role now.
It all makes one wonder: why is mass media so insisted in telling the bonobo’s fairy tale? And, while we are on the subject of wild speculation with wide prominence, why do they want people to believe the absurd notion that Vikings were secret Muslims? This is a really, really weird idea based on the flimsiest of evidence, as The Atlantic (a competitor of the New Yorker) helpfully explained in a recent article – only after all the major media outlets run with it like kids with Halal ice-cream:
Annika Larsson, a textile researcher at Uppsala University who was putting together an exhibit on Viking couture, decided to examine the contents of a Viking woman’s boat grave that had been excavated decades ago in Gamla Uppsala, Sweden. Inspecting the woman’s silk burial clothes, Larsson noticed small geometric designs. She compared them to similar designs on a silk band found in a 10th-century Viking grave, this one in Birka, Sweden. It was then that she came to the conclusion that the designs were actually Arabic characters—and that they spelled out the name of God in mirror-image. In a press release, she described the find as “staggering,” and major media outlets (including The New York Times, The Guardian, and the BBC) reported the story last week.
But other experts are not sure the silk bears Arabic script at all, never mind the word “Allah.” They warn that people being credulous of Larsson’s claim may be guided less by solid evidence than by a political motivation: the desire to stick it to white supremacists.
I’ve come up with a lot of crazy ideas for story pitches in my fifteen years working for The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News. One thing I learned: if you want them approved, make sure they correlate exactly with what gatekeepers want everyone to believe.
(* In an interview with an Australian radio station, in 2015, available here)