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Letters

Naked bonobos?

Dear Editors
I agree with much of "Bonobo Fides" (Pathfinders, January), but I would like to take issue on a few significant points.The author follows the sources on which he relies in placing too much emphasis on the power of the "combined females" as a deterrent to male violence. Bonobos of both genders keep the peace mainly by using friendly activities - grooming, play and sharing food as well as frequent sex - to soothe the tensions that might lead to violence. (They don't "run off into the bushes," by the way, but have sex in plain view of others. Here the author is mixing up bonobos with humans.) It also helps that with bonobos, unlike chimps, the males can't tell which females are ovulating, so they are unable to compete to sire offspring.

Bonobos may "live largely as vegetarians," but they do have a taste formeat. "Like chimpanzees, they are ready to grab and eat small antelope infants. They eat flying squirrels and sometimes earthworms" (Demonic Males, p. 216).

Unlike chimps, however, they never eat monkeys. Instead, bonobos play with monkeys as though they were pets. Monkeys are terrified of chimps but show no fear of bonobos. Apparently, this reflects a cultural taboo against killing and eating fellow primates, and such a taboo may be one reason why bonobos rarely attack and never kill one another. (Local humans have a similar taboo against hunting bonobos.)

Would chimps adopt bonobo behaviour in a bonobo environment and vice versa, "given long enough"? I think this is an exaggeration. Bonobos are a distinct species, not a kind of chimpanzee. ("Pygmy chimp" is a misleading term that dates from the time when this  was not yet recognized.) To the extent that bonobo sociality is a product of genetically  determined characteristics like large sexual organs and always being on heat, environmental change can affect it only to a limited degree. Over a period long enough  for evolution to occur the bonobo might lose these characteristics, but then it would no longer be a bonobo!

Especially for socialists, the good news about the bonobo is how close it is to man. We have 98.7 percent of our genes in common with the bonobo. That's the same figure as for the chimpanzee, but in numerous respects we - and also, according to physical anthropologist Adrienne Zihlman, our proto-human ancestors living in Africa 3 to 5 million years ago - are closer to bonobos than to chimps. This applies, for example, to bodily proportions, facial appearance (look at the photos in Frans de Waal and Frans Lanting, Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape), posture (bonobos walk upright much of the time, along trails that they make themselves), and of course sexual functioning. In 1967 Desmond Morris gave ammunition to the "human nature" objectors to socialism by "exposing" man as The Naked Ape. It's not quite so bad if we change that to "the naked bonobo"!

Only a few thousand bonobos are left, all of them in the war-torn Congo. Their extinction would be a tragedy for man too, not least because they are living proof of the positive side of our evolutionary heritage.

STEPHEN SHENFIELD (by e-mail)

But What Can I Do?

"But what can I do?" How many times do you hear that or similar phrases from people too overwhelmed by the enormity of the task that they can't see the wood for the trees?

Socialism isn't going to be born overnight,that has long been agreed. It's going to be a long uphill struggle by those with enough conviction against the million and one forces stacked against it, and I'm not talking about the forces of the imperial armies or the might of the transnational corporations, I'm talking about the likes of your brother-in-law who can only see as far as the next pay day and a six-pack in front of the TV, or the woman at work who can't understand that you won't buy a lottery ticket because winning the jackpot won't exactly mean you beat the system. Life can get tedious explaining the same old obvious thing to yet one more sceptical punter, however, if we don't.........?

This is about one of my bêtes-noires, which is, why do so many people drink Coca  Cola? (insert your own pet-hate here.) Not only does this company have a terrible track record for union busting around the world even going so far as to be involved in killings by private militia, for depriving some Indian villages of water and poisoning wells through over-extraction in others, but it's so full of sugar and junk that it tastes horrible and it's harmful to health to boot.

All the restaurants, cafes and bars in the tourist areas close to here offer Coke or Pepsi whichever concession is dominant in the particular vicinity and it follows that their other soft drinks and bottled water are purchased through the same concession. In towns and villages outside the tourist areas it is unusual to be offered bottled water at restaurants, coffee houses, bus station cafeterias and the like.

Water comes in a jug from the tap. Village water here is clean, unadulterated and abundant. Many townfolk can be observed stopping at their favourite spring by the roadside to stock up with several days' supply of what is considered the best drinking water. In the towns where chlorine etc is used in the public supply local shops deliver large containers of natural spring water (the preferred option) to homes and businesses.

In our very local favourite restaurant which served water bottled by the Coca Cola Co. here in Turkey (acknowledged in letters so small as to require both good light and good eyesight to see it and which has been guilty of union-busting here too), we would ask for a jug of village water from the tap, - no Coca Cola bottled water for us thankyou!

Over time and with a few more Turkish lessons under our belt we painstakingly explained our position to a number of employees and to the owners. One tack they understood and warmed to was that there are a number of small local water bottling plants, soft drink manufacturers and fruit juice companies (for the environment generally speaking local is better than national and national better than international). Very soon we noticed the presence of a local company's bottled water on the tables in place of the  earlier offence to the eye and the conscience. And my water from the tap now tastes  even sweeter.

We've had similar results with another restaurant we patronise, up in the mountains by a fast-flowing river. All the food served here comes from within just a few miles and now that includes the bottled water too.

So, 2 down, 999,998 to go. A drop in the ocean? Yes. A message in a bottle? Maybe.

JANET SURMAN, Turkey.