Before I tackle a discussion of human families, I’d like to take some time and examine what goes on in primate societies. Yes, people can’t realistically be compared to animals because of our specialized economies, spirituality, mobility, blah blah blah, but stick with me here.
Chimpanzees, genetically our closest relatives along with bonobos (we share about 98% of our genes with both of them), live in large communities made up primarily of females and their offspring, with a smaller number of males who are often related. The females co-exist within matrilines – that is, groups of closely related females – of which there are several within any given community. There are semi-separate hierarchical rankings for males and females. Both may use physical dominance and bullying to get their way, whether that is to gain access to some tasty fruit, have control over the behavior of another chimpanzee, or to get preferred sleeping spots. However, females also have the legacy of their mothers to draw upon. The matrilines are not equal, but rather each female has both her individual status and the status of her lineage. High-status matrilines have distinct advantages. A female need not constantly reinforce her place in the hierarchy with violence (though she may have to remind others of their places) with every interaction. Rather, simply being the daughter or niece of the highest ranking female allows her to take what she likes from other females, and sometimes from males as well. She will also have more and healthier offspring than her low-status counterparts, and her daughters will hold her position in society when she is old and feeling a little creaky. The daughters of low-status females, however, will be forced to disperse, to find another chimpanzee society that will take them out of charity. These daughters don’t have much chance of increasing their status; after the first few weeks of intensive grooming and shows of dominance, she will still probably end up at the bottom of the pile.
A chimpanzee female’s relatives are her best allies. She can count on her aunts, cousins, sisters, nieces, daughters, and granddaughters, and of course her mother and grandmother, to support her in any conflicts she may get in. Moreover, these relatives are the most likely ones to help her feed her own babies, to groom her, and to babysit. Of course female chimpanzees make friends outside of their families, but these friendships are just not as good. If given a choice between helping a sister and helping a friend, a chimpanzee will always help her sister, and the friend knows it. However, she may not help her cousin or her aunt quite so readily – sometimes they just don’t get along. A chimpanzee is stuck with her relatives and their bad habits and their abrasive personalities. The relatives may grudgingly intercede if, say, a male is harassing her especially harshly, but they may not stick their necks out as much as she would like. Still, a female without family is a female alone, and unless there’s a revolution (more on that later) she is doomed to the situation of the lower class - eating the scraps of the high-class, blessed with fewer and sicker children and at the mercy of whichever males take an interest in her.
There is one exception to the relative rule, in which female solidarity outweighs all status considerations – when males attack infants. Any nearby female is apt to come to the rescue. Usually a stranger is responsible, since males within the society mate with all females anyway, and the females would drive out a murdering male. Infanticide by males is a fear that all females share and will probably have to endure, and that like no other thing unites them as a sex. All females are always subordinate to all males.
Primate sexual behavior is really complex and fascinating, but the basic idea for all primates that kill infants is this: males have limited opportunities to reproduce and ensure his offspring’s survival, since females may not be ovulating when he is in power. Being in power, in the chimpanzee sense, is being in the same space as foreign females. Males have the opportunity to mate with all the females they live with, so only strange females are at risk of infanticide attacks. Since females nurse for several years, the best way to get one to ovulate (and be impregnated) sooner is to kill her baby and then be around to mate with her when she ovulates again. But this is a touchy business, requiring time for her to begin ovulating, firstly, and secondly it requires control of her sexual partners. If a male can kill a female’s infant and then ensure a relative monopoly over her sexual experiences, then he is likely to “win.” But if she can wander away and mate with other males when he’s not looking, then he has a greater chance of “losing.” And since females feed themselves and spend time away from other individuals while they do this, male chimps cannot be said to really control female reproductive choices. They can only influence those choices.
Males, speaking of which, are not so tyrannical as the above descriptions make them seem, though their constant threat against females is something to meticulously guard against. They make alliances with other males in hunting and in war, and status during those crucial times depends upon skill. Males establish their hierarchy almost exclusively through force – out and out fights, bullying, and so forth. As such, their status is unstable, especially when compared to species like gorillas, whose alpha males rarely leave power (that is, his harem) before death.
But of course males need not rely solely on that. Like females, they make friends with other males, especially their brothers, and will support each other in acts of defense and aggression. And they also make friends with females. If a male catches the fancy of a high-status female, she may bring him up in the world, if she can escape attacks from high-status males who wonder what she sees in that shrimp. (Answer: he’s probably really good at grooming, babysitting, and being aggressive on her behalf.) If the terms of the friendship are not fulfilled, however, resentment can poison the relationship and–voila!–a male sees himself without the support of a female and all her relatives. But if he’s the kind of chimpanzee who makes friends, he probably won’t mess it up. A male who makes friends of both sexes gains his status by goodwill and not by might, for his status is a proxy of his friends’. Still, these friendships are fragile, and chimpanzees tend not to maintain strong relationships over the long term with non-relatives.
Males, though, have little ability to change the social order of a group; they are always at risk of usurpation by younger males, raids by neighbors, and they remain unable to dictate terms to females (primarily because they cannot control female food supply, and therefore her behavior). Yet this depends upon local culture as well. Chimpanzees on the savannas of eastern Africa are more brutal, prone to war, infanticide, and male dominance of females than the chimpanzees of the Tai forest in the Ivory Coast. Tai chimps are more egalitarian and cooperative, use more and more complicated tools, and are more advanced – that is, more human – than their relatives on the savanna. Which messes up the idea that we humans evolved when we exited the forest for the grasslands.
Bonobos are fabulously different. Adolescent bonobo females are the ones who plunge into the great unknown. As chimps must do, they must prove themselves worthy of inclusion in a group of strangers. The young females must demonstrate cooperative personal traits, a willingness to please others, and generally show that they will be valuable assets to the community. In short, they must make friends. And they do this by giving everybody orgasms.
Bonobos remain one of the world’s most promiscuous species. They use all kinds of sex (oral, anal, gay, straight, orgiastic, masturbatory, exhibitionist, sex with minors, frottage, etc.) to maintain social bonds within the group. Most other species use other strategies. Cottontop tamarins, whose adolescent females disperse like bonobo females, primarily show their mettle by meticulous babysitting. Chimpanzees groom and pet each other to show affection to friends. But the destiny of the bonobo society is not determined by a core group of matrilines competing for privilege. Rather each individual group is held together by bonds of mutual affection and obligation. Any individual who proves herself (or himself) to be unpleasant or unwilling to contribute to the group will be kicked out. Chimpanzees may hate their relatives and get more enmity from the relationship than good, but this is never true with bonobos.
A young female bonobo, during her petition to join a community, will focus her initial attention on the females. When her position is more established she will turn more to the males, though sex with her female friends remains a large part of her life. For example, if a group is sitting around a watering hole and a young female wants a drink, she will have sex with every individual around it before slaking her thirst. Sex is also used as an alternative to other aggressive behaviors in stressful or new situations or in socially awkward situations (say, in the case of young bonobos learning new social skills).
What is remarkable about bonobo society, though, is its utter pacifism. Bonobos have a level of egalitarianism that the chimpanzees of the Tai forest do not come close to matching. Rather than having semi-separate social groups based on sex, high status bonobo males will often be the children of high status females, and they will interact closely with their mothers long after adulthood. Chimpanzees go to (cannibalistic, raping, baby-killing) war with neighboring chimps; bonobos peaceably mingle. There has never been a reported case in the wild or captivity of male bonobos killing infants. Females still are the primary caretakers of their children, but they are much more willing than chimpanzee mothers to let bonobo males take over for a little while. Females take precedence at feeding sites, which is unusual for nonmonogamous species. (Monogamous males such as gibbons will often cede the right to eat first, which makes more sense since the health of a female mate is directly tied to the male’s reproductive success.) There has never been a reported case of bonobo rape, and should a male press his suit too harshly every other female (and even nearby males) will attack him.
Let us regard bonobos and chimpanzees not as different species, but as two different kinds of cultures. What would “family” mean for each of these cultures?
Since the world is harsh and other primates only looking out for their own, families are the individuals in one’s group who look out for each other. They protect each other from harm, trade favors, and enjoy spending time near each other. Chimpanzee families are clear: for females, families are female relatives and possibly friends. For males, families are brothers and other males close in status. Families exist as smaller, semi-supportive units within a larger culture that contains hostile social elements. Families protect against those elements.
But for bonobos the question is almost nonsensical. Yes, bonobos within a group prefer some individuals over others, and they may particularly prefer blood relations. There are quarrels and disagreements within the culture. But bonobos will defend any member of their group, will trade favors with anyone, and like pretty much anybody. “Family,” then, is a superfluous concept in bonobo culture.
I do not mean to imply that everybody should be more like bonobos or that chimpanzee culture is a bad one. And, as I mentioned before, human cultures cannot and should not be compared to primate cultures. We differ too much. But it is interesting to note that bonobo culture, which is supportive (for whatever reason), does not need the family structure to support individuals. Chimpanzees must protect themselves not only from the world itself, but from others around them. It so happened that semi-segregated societies based on sex worked for chimpanzee survival, even if it didn’t work out as well for chimpanzee egalitarianism. Thus, hierarchical chimps need the family institution.
Finally and for no particular reason, here are some chimpanzee siblings.