For survival and reproduction in the Middle Stone Age, Homo sapiens was still following his biological program. He was the ‘naked ape’, an animal. And his chimpanzee ancestors had inscribed in his genome some features that made him very successful: Male aggression, patriarchy, and promiscuity.
Africa is big and I know that between the East, Central Africa and the West, there are different kinds of chimpanzees. But the West African chimpanzees I visited in the National Park of Taï in the tropical rainforest of Côte d’Ivoire were presented to me as omnivores and hunters. They prey on monkeys, mongooses, and antelopes the size of bushbucks. The park is on the border to Liberia, along the Cavalla River, and this creates a problem: Liberians paddle across the imaginary borderline in the middle of the river and – in competition to the chimpanzees in the park – they illegally hunt bush meat for themselves. Apart from being hunters, there is a second specialty of the West African chimpanzee: They are not afraid of water, as the chimpanzees – and, by the way, all apes – normally are. But splashing around in the Cavalla River, is a risky undertaking. The river teems with crocodiles. And although chimpanzees have been observed using wooden sticks as spears for hunting, they were never able to turn around their relationship with the crocodiles which prey on them to this day. I mention this just to remind the reader of the supremacy over all the other animals Homo sapiens had reached, already in the Stone Age. And then there is a third specialty of the West African chimpanzee: After the hunt, they share the prey amongst each other. – Could it be that humans also came to hunting from the chimpanzees?
Male aggression has formed both chimpanzee and human societies for millions of years. It was crucial for both individual and collective survival and reproduction. And hunting undoubtedly being an act of violence, it is linked to the male aggression. Still today. There are recent studies linking modern-day men’s sport hunting to higher levels of violence, animal cruelty, criminal behaviors, domestic violence, and lower levels of empathy. Yet, over the ages that humans have lived as hunter-gatherers, the natural selection in human reproduction that shapes their behaviors has favored hunting skills in men. This adds to the innate gender-specific behaviors of humans for best survival and reproduction: For the food, males hunt and females gather. And as we already know, for reproduction, males search for mates and compete for them by violence and courtship, and females attract and chose their mates for quality offspring.
According to the ‘hunting hypothesis’, hunting advanced human evolution altogether and pushed the development of toolmaking, cooperation, and language. And the genetic predisposition of males for aggression and hunting also becomes the evolutionary explanation for other things only men do, and some sex-differences: As a hunter in the Stone Age, a male would hunt for food and fight for females, and his social status would depend on being better than the others at those two things – or he could fight his way directly into status, by violence. Today, social status is expressed in material terms. In the crude speak of an American I once heard: ‘Three things count in life: Fast food, fast women and fast cars’. But men also built male leadership and male coalitions on their aggression, thus forming the basis of the human social structure: Patriarchy for sure, but so far to the success of the species.
And then there is sport, in which men exercise and develop their aggressive skills in elementary competition, risk-taking and warfare – and show them off to gain social status, the sexual attraction of women, and money. An international football star marries a model and drives a Lamborghini. Ever since I can remember, I am a fan of Liverpool FC, and I played my own club football as a junior with FC Bern. Thereafter for decades when I was in Bern, I continued playing with my friends, every Thursday evening and in the summer, occasional amateur weekend tournaments. I can thus tell you with some authority that, for men who can draw on their millions of years of innate experience in hunting, football is the most complete and fascinating human game. To play and to watch. With its simple rules, it involves all human capacities: Reptilian brain, mammalian brain, cortex. Spatial perception, processing of movement in space and time. Attack and defense, rational calculation and intuition, feeling and reason, solo dribbling and passing game with teammates, physical and mental strength, flexibility, speed and stamina. – Who cares about social status, women, and money!
Having seen both the hunting chimpanzees in Côte d’Ivoire and the mountain gorillas in the Congo, my sympathy was always on the side of the latter. I feel a kind of revulsion to knowing that I stem from the chimpanzees. So, what about the gorillas? They branched off the line of the chimpanzees 7 or 8 million years ago. Had Lucy then followed the gorillas instead of the chimpanzees, and then 4 million years later, stepped away from the gorillas, human evolution would have taken a completely different path. But even as things stand now, the gorilla remains an ancestor of ours. We share 98% of our DNA with it and 30% of our human genome is closer to the gorilla than to the chimpanzee.
Gorillas live in troops of normally around a dozen individuals, all under leadership of a dominant male, the silverback. In the group, the silverback calls all the shots for his females and offspring, and possibly, other subdued males: Patriarchy. Where the mating system of the chimpanzees is violent and promiscuous, the one of the gorillas is polygamous and, in his harem, the silverback has the sole mating-rights. He will engage in parenting to an extent of his individual inclination and there is an important reproduction pay-off for him when he does: His females will reward it with more offspring. Gorillas are a peaceable animal but when the group is threatened or another male goes after one of his females, the silverback gets aggressive and becomes very dangerous. The gorillas’ diet is strictly vegetarian, herbs, leaves, shoots, and fruits. But no bananas. Sometimes they will break open an ant or termite nest to feed off the insects and their larvae, but they do not hunt other animals. And except King Kong, they are all afraid of water.
Of course, this mating-system of the gorillas sounds familiar. Fast forward: In 2013, former South African president Jacob Zuma visited the United Kingdom. In the British press, he was criticized for having come with the most recent of his three wives, officially as the First Lady. In all, Zuma had five wives, but one died, and he divorced another. On top of that he has fathered at least one of his 20 children out of wedlock. But Zuma defended his polygamous marriage as being in line with the traditional culture of the Zulu tribe he belongs to. And polygamy is indeed a longstanding tradition with many ethnicities in many parts of Africa, particularly in the rural areas. But it is not the norm. Today in Sub-Sahara Africa overall, a little more than 10% of the people live in polygamous arrangements, in a cluster of West and Central African countries it goes up to around 30%. As a type of mating-system, polygamy is of course about sex. But for modern humans it is also about money. It has been and still is the privilege of those who can afford to marry and maintain multiple wives and children. And setting a public sign that you have more material and sexual resources than the average man, polygamy creates social status. For a time, it seemed that the modern urban lifestyle would wipe it out. But in many of Africa’s affluent urban centers, as more men can afford it, polygamy is on the rise.
Back to Zuma, never with embarrassment in controversy: The contention goes back to the 18th Century, when white missionaries preached that conversion to Christianity entailed divorcing one’s ‘extra wives’ and then the 19th Century, when the British colonisers ‘pushed monogamy down the throats of black people’ through taxes that rose for each additional wife. Polygamy offers Zuma a political marker that he is connected to the traditional culture of pre-colonial Africa. And he is ready to protect and preserve it in today’s globalized Western blur: ‘I don’t know why they are continuing thinking that their culture is more superior than others’. And his final conclusion: ‘Monogamous marriage with one woman, divorce, and remarriage with another is just another form of polygamous marriage. It’s just not happening concurrently’. – I am a divorcee and live in a second marriage. That makes me polygamous? Like a gorilla? No hunting? Okay, at least I get to be a silverback. I think, I could live with that.