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Are We Bonobos or Chimpanzees? What Evolution Tells Us About Occupy Wall Street

In bonobo society, where food is abundant and easy to gather, females spend most of their time with each other, offering protection against other forms of violence.

Bonobos and chimpanzees, our closest animal relatives, are almost exactly the same type of monkey. They are so similar, in fact, they only became distinguished as separate species in 1929. But chimpanzee and bonobo societies are dramatically different. In chimpanzee culture, males dominate, sex is strictly for reproduction and violence and infanticide are common. Bonobo society, on the other hand, is remarkably peaceful and is characterized by an abundance of recreational sex and strong female bonding. This marked difference is inextricably linked to the relative levels of female interaction in each society. In chimpanzee habitats, where food is difficult to obtain, females spend their time isolated from one another, gathering food and caring for their offspring. Their seclusion leaves them susceptible to violence and allows male chimpanzees ample opportunity to fight and build hierarchies. In bonobo society, where food is abundant and easy to gather, females spend most of their time with each other. Pervasive female bonding obscures paternity lines, removing the incentive for infanticide, and offers protection and support against other forms of violence.

The evolutionary advantages of bonobo lifestyle, well-known among primatologists, served as an introduction to our first Divine Feminine discussion at Occupy Wall Street. Tired of male-dominated spaces and conversations, female occupiers were insisting on the importance of coming together simply for the sake of, well, coming together. Unlike WOW (Women Occupying Wall Street), there was no agenda, no actions being planned. The purpose was solely to meet and share what was on our minds without men present.

To be perfectly honest, I entered my first Divine Feminine discussion out of duty rather than desire. I had more than enough commitments, caucuses and events competing for my time – meeting for meeting’s sake was not a priority. I was also a bit put off by the group’s name, with its whiff of gender essentialism. I was more interested in dismantling gender binaries than discussing estrogen with a bunch of earth mothers.

But I have also experienced my share of sexism at Occupy Wall Street. I have watched too many women shrink from sharing their ideas, too many temperate voices shouted out of conversations, and too many important issues squeezed off of the agenda. I have heard too many terrible stories testifying to the very real violence and dangers plaguing female occupiers as night falls. And after over a month of pushing aside the things that are most important to me – family, friends, physical health – in the name of building a better world, the idea of taking time to nurture human relationships, bonding, and conversation, hit a nerve. So I figured I would make a show of solidarity, get in touch with my Divine Femininity for a few minutes, and then get back to work.

It turned out I was not alone. Perching just outside the circle to signify their non-commitment, several attendees announced at the outset that they could only stay ten minutes, just came to check things out, “what is Divine Feminine anyway?” That’s when my friend Ketchup shared the story about the bonobos, explaining that when women spend time together, all of society benefits; when we isolate ourselves, society suffers. By the time she reached this simple conclusion, everyone had drawn in closer.

Ten minutes came and went and nobody left, except to run to a bathroom or grab a hot chocolate from the nearby falafel cart. One woman returned triumphantly wielding a large pizza and proudly announced that she had used her “Divine Feminine powers” to procure it from the OWS kitchen team. Over the course of the night it became clear to me that the value of the group, what set it apart from the 60-odd other groups operating at Occupy Wall Street, had nothing to do with biology. Rather, what kept us there was a testament to how, as one woman put it, “the feminine act of listening is beautiful and radical.”

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