Are You A Baboon Or A Bonobo?

competitive parents, parenting one upmanship

I’m waiting in a movie theater line behind two women who are clearly friends. And rivals.

“Max won front line seats to this weekend’s game. It’s the first month the school is offering prizes for the highest overall score and Max is their first winner. Already we can see the advantages of this new school.”

“That’s so nice for him. Jeffrey really prefers playing football to just sitting there watching it. The coach keeps telling us that Jeffrey is a natural and sure to get a Big Ten scholarship.”

“Don’t you worry about him tackling when he’s so young? I heard that high school football players can get brain damage and Jeffrey is only 14, probably smaller than the other players. It’s such a risk.”

“That’s so sweet of you to be concerned. But Jeffrey isn’t taking a risk. He’s learning to look out for himself. That makes a difference in the real world. I’m more concerned for Max, insulated by that private school from experiences that could toughen him up. He’s such a nice guy, I’m worried for him.”

Barbed remarks just kept coming from their smiling mouths.

Yes, I’m a biased observer. I prefer what’s gentle, inclusive, and nature-based. This generally works for me. I say “generally” because I’m hampered when communicating with certain people—those who one-up each over with how perfect their lives are or, conversely, spar about who has it worse. I’m well aware that it’s best to listen with empathy but sometimes I can’t help myself. I just want to get out of the way. That’s because these conversations remind me of angry primates flinging poo.

Turns out there’s something to that image. Biological anthropologist Gwen Dewar noted that the “verbal sniping, snobbery, one-ups-manship, and cruelty” of mean moms has a striking parallel in the animal kingdom. Yup, she’s talking about monkeys and apes.

Females in certain monkey societies live in dominance hierarchies. There are perks for those at the top of the social ladder such as better food and first choice of sleeping places. In bad times, higher ranking females and their offspring are more likely to survive. Social rankings don’t budge. Top monkey moms make sure their daughters share their status. Low-ranking monkey moms can’t do anything to help their daughters move from up from the bottom. And middle-ranking moms can only ensure that their daughters stay in that relatively comfortable spot.

This stratification happens because monkey mothers are pushy. Top monkey moms enlist their powerful relatives in an ongoing campaign to make low-ranking monkeys defer to their daughters. As Dewar puts it, “These girls learn to be snobs. To form social cliques. To harass their social inferiors and toady to their social betters.” At a young age, monkeys know who pushes and who gets pushed. They work hard to assert their own status in order to pass that status (and the survival benefits) along to their daughters.

peaceful versus pushy parents,

The analogy isn’t perfect. Humans are pushy for reasons more complex than access to food and better choices of sleeping spots. Plus, we have even more reasons not to be pushy.

But even primates are hard to categorize. Only certain species, like baboons, live in groups with the female dominance hierarchies that Dewar likened to “mean moms.” Other species are wonderfully egalitarian, with strong female alliances, like the bonobos.

Bonobos live in matriarchal peace-loving groups. One of the many ways they get along is by frequently offering each other casual sexual stimulation, which rules out suggesting bonobo style friendship to moms waiting in line at the movie theater.

Putting that particular bonobo feel-good formula aside, what primate-like politics do you observe in your fellow humans? How about you? Baboon or bonobo?

10 thoughts on “Are You A Baboon Or A Bonobo?

  1. I’ve shied away from female dominance hierarchies my whole life, confusing and harshly shifting uneven terrain…
    When younger, always had more male than female friends – felt more comfortable, less competitive, more shared interests..and that solidified as I got older.
    Now I wish that uneven friendship equation was more balanced…
    Strongly egalitarian female alliances with frequent casual sexual stimulation would surely catapult me into a different social realm!


    • I’ve shied away from female dominance hierarchies too, although I’ve worked for a few female baboon-type bosses who regularly engaged in the human equivalent of biting, food stealing, and poo flinging.


  2. I have so little social contact, am not sure what my place is, or whether I’m more like baboon or bonobo! However, having been raised as the third of four girls, I sought retreat from the fray, if at all possible, and sometimes physical self-defense was downright necessary. My older sister was definitely baboon-like and is still overbearing, so much so that I have avoided any contact with her for these last 7 years! But sometimes, when I am in a public place, such as I was in the laundromat yesterday, thinking my own thoughts, some of which were not that pleasant, I gather the expression on my face must have been a little scary, as a young woman who was also there got a kind of questioning, concerned look on her face as I left..She said, “Have a great day!” and I said thanks and left. I really dislike going to a laundromat!

    In a way, being so isolated seems detrimental to my growth, especially regarding social exchange. However, I would rather go crazy in the woods than surrounded by tens of thousands in a city! I’m neither a baboon nor bonobo. I would call myself a WIMP!

    Love your posts!


    • Katherine, you’re not a wimp. You’re a Western tarsier! They are born highly skilled, prefer solitude, and are so sensitive that contact with humans (including being petted) severely depresses their immune system and can lead to death. Surely Western tarsiers would avoid laundromats. (BTW, look up a tarsier photos, they are adorable.)


  3. Wow, L.

    Did you really say *feel good* there at the end?

    I personally can’t stand when two chunky women tell each other *Oh you look so skinny!* It’s a particularly great time for me to COUGH out loud.

    Meanwhile I’ve lost 5 pounds and none of my simian jabroni’s even noticed…


    • Yup, said it. What about consensual sexual stimulation doesn’t?

      I think you look fab, even with your shirt on.

      BTW, my favorite thing I heard two women say to each other was overheard at a street art festival. Repeatedly these ladies would see something they liked and exclaim to each other, “I could just pee, couldn’t you just PEE?” Incontinence as art appreciation. My daughter and I made the mistake of using that line sardonically, then realized we’d end up overheard by some other poor slob.


  4. Apart from the casual sex bit, I’m more bonobo than baboon. There are some people I have or am slowly deleting from my life due to their constant baboon comments. Flinging poo, indeed. Who needs it?!


    • I know that game well too, Sue. When I find myself eyes down and silent toothy fake grin, I known I’m using the ape expression of appeasement and submission. We bonobo types are everywhere. Don’t give up!


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