What Makes Us Human

And one percent Neanderthal

“We Gonna Make Bonobo Love”

Ape men and mama's boys.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lr_new_best_bonobo_pics20.jpg

I'm gonna take you to my
Bungalow
In the Jungle-o
We gonna make banana love
You'll sing a high C
Up in the swingin' tree
When we make banana love...

(Banana Love, written and performed by The Bobs)

Science begins its coverage with "Most people don't want their parents meddling in their sex lives." Discover says "Most human men would be appalled at the idea of their mothers helping them to get laid." MSNBC concurs: "To most human males, the thought of your mother anywhere near your sex life is probably horrifying."

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What prompted these shocked observations? A sober study of differential reproductive success among bonobos by researchers at the Max Plack Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, led by Martin Surbeck.

There's no way to resist a headline like Discover‘s Bonobo males get sex with help from their mums.

It's the "mums" that really makes this one: so intimate, so friendly. Come for a cuppa tea, stay for a...

Science online is nastier: Mama's Boys Get the Girls, it proclaims (or complains). Emphasizing that in the absence of moms, the dominant male gets more sex (40% vs. only 25% when every male's mother is part of the group), Science manages to take an alpha male view of the whole thing, and leaves the impression that lower ranked males are cheating to rely on Mom.

But leave it to the mass media to mine the most vulgar of metaphors: MSNBC declares, For bonobo males, mom is best wingman.

E! Science News must have felt the need to raise the tone a little; Mothers Matter is their discreet brown wrapper of a subject line. Do they ever.

Martin Surbeck, Roger Mundry, and Gottfried Hohmann made the points with a lot less drama in their original research report:

The presence of mothers enhances the mating success of sons and reduces the proportion of matings by the highest ranking male. Mothers and sons have high association rates and mothers provide agonistic aid to sons in conflicts with other males. As bonobos are male-philopatric and adult females occupy high dominance status, maternal support extends into adulthood and females have the leverage to intervene in male conflicts.

The Discover writer finds it necessary to clarify that the bonobo "mums" aren't normally beating up on the other boys:

Mothers are probably using their status to usher their sons into the right spot within the group, allowing them to interact more closely with females. They're more matchmakers than bodyguards.

The human imagery is unavoidable; moms are matchmakers who intervene to help their loser sons get an unfair advantage and hang out with the girls.

The authors of the popular articles are in no doubt as to why bonobo mothers do it, either:

To pass on her DNA, a mother bonobo needs grandchildren.

Just like any mother worried that her son isn't going to take the plunge in time.

Media fascination with the story really has little to do with bonobo lives.

Our close relatives among the non-human primates serve as usual as a mirror in our quest for what makes us human:

I wanna beat my breast like an ape man
I don't wanna comb my hair
I'll strip down to the waist
And up to the waist
And forget about the underwear
A-huk-a-luk-a-huk-a-luk-a-muck-muck
That's the way I wanna talk
So come on baby, get down on all fours
Let's walk! Walk! Walk!

Copyright Rosemary A. Joyce, PhD

Rosemary Joyce, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley.

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