July 26, 2001 — -- What if super-intelligent talking apes really did take over the world? It might be one big sex party.
Scientists are amazed by the sexual antics of the bonobos, who are as close to humans as the chimpanzees.
The bonobos share more than 98 percent of the same DNA as their human cousins, and they party like hairy little Hugh Hefners. Their society literally revolves around elaborate, recreational sex. They typically resolve a group conflict with a a nice, long orgy.
"The bonobos are the free-sex hippies of the animal world," says primatologist Franz de Waal of Emory University in Atlanta, author of Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape (University of California Press). "They make the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s look quite tame. You'll see two bonobos hanging upside down and copulating — and groups of them doing likewise."
Indeed, a Planet of the Apes run by the promiscuous bonobos would be a whole lot different than what we'll see at the movies. It would certainly have given new meaning to Charlton Heston's immortal line from the original film: "Take your stinking paws off me you damn, dirty ape."
Chimps Don't Monkey Around
In a bonobo-dominated world, Mark Wahlberg, the star of the new Ape flick, might slip back into his Dirk Diggler porn star role from Boogie Nights.
Most of us would consider inter-species romance bananas. However, in the new film, Wahlberg actually shares an onscreen kiss with his chimp counterpart, Helena Bonham Carter — an actress who looks pretty darn good with long sideburns, a hairy chest and knuckles that drag on the ground.
In our world, when it comes to making love, real chimps don't monkey around. It's all business, with rarely any foreplay. A typical lovemaking session lasts under 10 seconds. The bonobos, however, are connoisseurs of recreational nookie.
If two males get into a fight over food, they will do a little more than kiss and make up. "They practice homosexuality much more than other species — and they do it just for pleasure," says de Waal.
"They do it in every combination imaginable. They do it face-to-face, with some French kissing thrown in. And they do it often just to relieve tension."
A Society of Mama's Boys
Not much is known about the bonobos, also known as the pygmy chimpanzees. They are few in number and were only identified as a distinct species in the ape world in the 1930s. They are only known to live in the wilds of the Congo region of Africa.
Compared to chimps, the bonobos have longer legs and smaller heads. They're more slender and tend to walk erect on two feet — much as humans do.
And unlike the male-dominated, sometimes warlike chimps, the bonobos are all mama's boys. In fact, the males depend on their mothers for protection all their lives and derive their status by being the son of a dominant female.
Only about 120 bonobos are in captivity. A zookeeper in Cincinnati learned just how different a bonobo is from other primates a few years ago. "The bonobo grabbed him and kissed him, open-mouthed," said de Waal. "That guy probably never expected to get a tongue stuck in his mouth."
"A chimp wouldn't engage in 'French kissing,' but certainly, that's just the beginning for a bonobo," said de Waal.
The political maelstrom in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo has made it nearly impossible for scientists to do more research on this endangered species.
In recent years, animal rights activists have complained that bonobos are being hunted and eaten as "bush meat." Scientists fear as few as 10,000 still exist in the wild.
"We can only assume the worst," says de Waal. "It would be so tragic to lose them. Yet the risk is very real."
We can only hope that the situation in the bonobos' homeland will improve, that they will soon get the protection they deserve. Maybe we all have to consider that we're a little more like the bonobo than we care to admit.
Buck Wolf is entertainment producerat ABCNEWS.com. The Wolf Files ispublished Tuesdays and Thursdays. If you want to receive weekly notice whena new column is published, join the e-maillist.