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Bonobos: A Postscript


Speaking of bonobos, it's not without cultural significance that Chris Mooney and the headline writers at Mother Jones should keep flogging them as a mascot of human-ape genetic similarity. The promiscuous pygmy chimp is an emblem, for some people, of how it ought to be perfectly acceptable for humans to behave. After all, we're 98.7 percent bonobo don't you know!

If you do a Google image search for bonobos -- I don't recommend it -- you'll find numerous photos of these animals in flagrante delicto that people have posted around the Internet. What a world we live in. The human world, I mean.

There's even a pop music star who goes by the moniker Bonobo. I had never heard of him, but according to a map that's making the rounds on Facebook, showing which states in the U.S. have what rock stars as their favorites, Bonobo is the most popular musical artist in the state of California. (UPDATE: The Washington Post disputes this interpretation.)

The poor guy, a Brit whose real name is Simon Green, actually chose the name without knowing much at all about bonobos or being aware of any of the associations that go with them. He just liked the sound of the word. It has more of a beat to it than calling yourself Orangutan.

Now that he's stuck with the name, he's making the best of it.

You seem to have a strong connection with animals -- your first record was Animal Magic, and later Dial M for Monkey. Even your moniker, Bonobo, is a breed of ape. Can you tell us a bit about the connection?

[Laughs] To be honest, there isn't any connection. I started using the name Bonobo, and have just kind of been making puns about it ever since. I mean, I like animals, they're cool [laughs]. I didn't think it would come this far! It's not like I'm crusading for these monkeys! It's just a name.

Hey, they're apes, not monkeys! More:

If you had to give a presentation on Bonobo apes right now, could you do it? Or would you have to go do some research?

I could probably bluff it. I could probably get about ten or fifteen minutes before anyone realized. I mean people are always like, "Did you know Bonobos do this or that?" So I have all these little facts about them. I didn't know anything about them when I decided to call myself Bonobo.

But yeah, I could tell people. I wouldn't feel comfortable in panel of Bonobo experts. But I could tell a casual monkey fan about Bonobos and that would be enough.  

Have you ever played your music for Bonobo apes?

No. I've never met one. The Bonobo conservation people have started reaching out now and they want me to go meet them or whatever. So I would [play it or them], but I've never found them in my vicinity.

This to me has definite shades of Arthur "Two Sheds" Jackson.

Meanwhile our friend and colleague Denyse O'Leary asks about that figure of 98.7 percent similarity. Thought experiment: Say it was 100 percent, what then?

When it edges upward to "100 Percent of Our DNA with This Sex-Obsessed Ape," what will become of Mooney's story?

Is the point of his claims to constantly diminish the claimed figure but never quite get there? All he is really diminishing is the apparent value of the genome as a source of information about life forms. If he never quite gets to 100%, he still has a story.

What's really significant for an assessment of critical thinking in our culture is how few of Mooney's readers would be able to think that one out. To ask where exactly that leaves genetics.

Well, if the number of habitable Earth-like exoplanets keeps going up, why not the percentage figure for human-ape genetic overlap?

I'm now on Twitter. Find me @d_klinghoffer.

Image source: to.wi/Flickr.