The Bonobo Architect

To successfully implement architecture in an organisation, whether a project or a multinational enterprise, the architects’ character is key. Obviously. We all know the human factor is paramount. Don’t we?

Especially in politically charged organisations (which organisation isn’t?) all kinds of ideas about leadership and effective character attributes abound. To an extent some of these ideas are supported by accumulated knowledge about human biology. Or maybe I should say animal biology.

About our intrinsic human nature all kinds of stories abound as well. Are humans “by nature” egoistic? Is our main priority survival of ourselves, if necessary at the expense of others? Or do we have an inborn awareness of the interest of the whole, and the fact that, for the survival of the group or the species, it is sometimes better to sacrifice individuals, especially our own individuality? Or at least put that individuality second-place?

I do not have the answers to these questions. It is just that I realised that the time-proven story of man as a “hunter’, and the associated statement that “war is eternal” and our base drive is aggression, never really resounded in me. Fortunately there is abundant material to at least consider other hypotheses. Inspired by pioneering work from Marija Gimbutas and many others I was able to visualise a radically different history of humankind. Just as I always felt the general statement that life is governed by the “survival of the fittest” to be a political reflection of the spirit of the time that created that statement, around 1860. This was the period of the civil war in the United States. A period in which Denmark and Germany fought each other, when Austria invaded Germany, Japan was attacked by several countries and Russia fought on its borders. At the same time the emancipation of coloured people and women started, causing the toppling of all kinds of “certainties” for the established order.

Our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, the chimpanzees and the bonobos, may serve as interesting analogies. These creatures mirror aspects of our own nature, relatively outside our human Zeitgeist, although in the case of chimpanzees I have my doubts because this species has been in very close contact with humans lately and seems to undergo fundamental changes. These two great apes mirror aspects of our own nature.

Both species have been researched. Most research has been done on the chimpanzee, because the bonobo has only recently been “discovered” in 1929. Everyone will probably have heard about Jane Goodall who lived for years with several chimpanzee groups. The name most associated with the bonobo, a different great ape that is perhaps even more closely related to humans, is the Dutch primatologist and ethologist Frans van der Waal. The bonobo has impressive mental and cognitive capabilities, about which you can read for example in this article on Kanzi,

Both species are almost symbolic in their representation of the opposites I sketched earlier:

  • Humans as basically driven by aggression, self-survival, sexual male dominance (chimpanzee)
  • Or humans as social creatures, prioritising the group and the species over its own survival, female dominance (bonobo)

Especially the research into that remarkable and intriguing great ape, the bonobo, is something I would like to refer to to introduce a style of architecture that can have a healing power in organisation wrestling with their “chimpanzee” nature.

Exactly what are those extraordinary properties of the bonobo?

Maybe I should clarify one thing first. The bonobo is sometimes referred to as the “sexual ape”. Humans observed early on that within bonobo communities sex is constantly used to erase conflicts and release tension. I do not intend to suggest we should do likewise in our companies. Instead I’d like to introduce other characteristics and strategies.

Dealing with conflicts

Bonobo apes have developed a social interaction strategy which is extremely effective in dealing with conflicts. Whenever a larger number of individuals group together you will have conflicts. Bonobos never try to evade or deny conflicts. They are masters in dealing with them, and immediately tackle any conflict heads-on.

There is an experiment, reported by Brian Hare, which challenged both chimpanzees and bonobos. Food was put on a platform that could only be brought within reach by collaborating in the group. Both groups eventually succeeded in obtaining the reward. But the differences were surprising. Bonobos were much faster. They commenced the challenge with play, and the food they obtained was joyfully distributed within the group. The chimps wrestled from the start with their competitive natures, and constantly fought over the food when they finally obtained it.

Brian Hare is also credited with the theory that bonobos have undergone some kind of self-inflicted domestication, comparable to the human domestication of dogs: Tame Theory: Did Bonobos Domesticate Themselves?.

In many respects bonobos seem more civilised than chimpanzees. Or humans. It is not that bonobo communities do not have conflicts. On the contrary, there are constant disagreements, like in any community. But, as Frans de Waal has shown,: there is not one recorded instance of bonobos physically wounding a member of their own species, something which is common with chimpanzees, who even occasionally go on killing sprees. The first thing bonobos do when confronted with a conflict is intervene. Usually the higher placed females take this upon themselves. Antagonising high-ranked females is not something you want to do in a bonobo community! All females will collaborate to stop you, using an extremely wide spectrum of techniques, including play and sex. It is hard to remain angry when you are being seduced!

Bonobo groups are constantly engaged in bonding, strengthening social cohesion, in such a consistent way that it even seems that conflicts are just another tool to enhance the group.

Often humans use conflicts to lock themselves into their opinions on what is right in their minds. This effectively hampers exactly the kind of interaction needed to resolve the conflict. Isolating yourself in self-righteous groups of like-minded supporters is the perfect breeding ground for ever-repeating and escalating conflicts.

If we really want to live together on this planet we have few other options but take action, instantly, with any conflict, and get parties in contact with each other. Do not let the conflict stew, do not turn away and make the counter party into the “enemy”, but acknowledge and confirm that essentially our needs are the same.


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