PARIS — If you believe mankind has grown decadent and that we should look to nature for an example of modesty and self-control, you would be in for a surprise. Because when it comes to bad behavior — be it thievery, infidelity or even drug abuse — the animal kingdom knows few bounds.
Take sex, for example. The undisputed champion in this regard is the bonobo. This species of great ape, discovered in 1928, is a cousin of the chimpanzee and our closest animal relative. Unlike gorillas, which are known to have short and violent intercourse, bonobos like to take their time, engaging in sexual encounters that are both delicate and intimate. Sexual partners even go so far as to maintain eye contact. Interestingly, bonobos, particularly females, also engage in same-sex relations.
Sex isn't an obsession for bonobos, but rather the key to their peaceful lifestyles. Unlike chimpanzees, bonobos do not make war. They make love. Sex has multiple functions: It strengthens social bonds, can serve as a peace offering, or an invitation to share food.
Frans de Waal, professor in primatology, recalls that in a wildlife natural reserve in Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of Congo), scientists introduced a new group of bonobos to one previously settled. Chimpanzees would have turned the situation into a bloodbath, he says. But the bonobos turned it into an orgy. Tensions were diffused. Friendships were established.
Bonobos (and humans, if we're being honest here) may take the cake when it comes to sexual appetite. But they're by no means the only animal species whose sexual practices could be described as a bit "risqué."
[rebelmouse-image 27089193 alt="""" original_size="1024x683" expand=1]
Bonobo maintaining eye-contact — Photo: Martin Fisch
Male marine iguanas from the Galápagos islands, for example, practice masturbation (paradoxically) to reproduce. It is a key strategy to pass on genes because younger individuals are often chased away by older, bigger and fiercer competitors before their task is completed. They therefore masturbate until climax to ensure that they inseminate the female iguana.
Unlike iguanas, sea hares, a type of sea slug, can't masturbate. But they do have a real fondness for group sex. These hermaphrodites can form big clusters when reproducing. It only requires two individuals to attract dozens of others.
Monogamy, in fact, is quite rare in the animal kingdom. So rare that it could be actually considered a "deviant biological behavior," according to British biologist Olivia Judson, author of Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation. "In a great number of species, not only do females mate with many males but they benefit from it," she explains. "The most promiscuous ones give birth to larger and healthier broods."
Then there's the issue of homosexuality, which was long ignored in scientific works and silenced because of prudery or homophobia. The topic remains something of a mystery, but it is known that various bird and mammal species engage in homosexual activity. Researchers speculate that it has a social origin or is practiced simply for pleasure's sake.
As we humans are well aware, sex can also lead to frustration, even bursts of violence — especially among males competing for the same partner. Among elephants, violence of this kind can really get out of hand, which may explain why the species, more so than others, is so fond of the aphrodisiacal powers of alcohol.
In one infamous incident, in October 1999, a group of about 15 elephants in northeastern India charged into a village and brought down the gates of a brewery where rice lager was fermenting in a hangar. After partially emptying the silos, the pachyderms continued their rampage, killing four people and wounding six.
[rebelmouse-image 27089194 alt="""" original_size="4288x2848" expand=1]
Go home elephant, you're drunk — Photo: Dennis Jarvis
Substance abuse issues, it turns out, abound in the animal kingdom. Ronald Siegel, UCLA psychiatry department professor and psychopharmacologist, has traveled the world to study drug consumption among animals. His findings are eye opening. "In every country, in almost every class of animal, I found examples of not only accidental but intentional use of drugs," Siegel explains in his 2005 book Intoxication: The Universal Drive for Mind-Altering Substances.
Everything will do: fermented fruit juice, Indian hemp, opium extracted from poppies or cocaine from coca leaves. Certain sexually frustrated flies develop alcoholic tendencies. First and foremost, though, drug and alcohol consumption seems to be motivated by the quest of pleasure.
In Russia, some bears have even developed a habit for inhaling volatile vapors, a practice also known as "huffing." A photographer named Igor Shpilenok made the discovery while shooting pictures of landscapes. He noticed that bears were gathering at a local airfield and later surmised that they were attracted by the prevalent kerosene fumes. Some, he realized, were so addicted that they would steal empty barrels of kerosene and roll them to the forest where they would quietly breathe in the fumes and then collapse, completely intoxicated, in a hole they dug.
But like humans, not all creatures have the same tolerance and taste for alcohol and drugs. In a 2002 experiment to study our genetic predisposition to alcoholism, researchers in the Caribbean island of Saint Kitts conducted an experiment using 1,000 vervet monkeys, with whom we share 96% of our DNA. The primates were provided with large quantities of different beverages. Approximately 15% of them rejected alcohol completely, preferring fruit juice. About two thirds of the animals were occasional drinkers. Another 15% were heavy drinkers. And 5% displayed real alcoholic tendencies.
Perhaps even more interesting was the fact that the monkeys had differing reactions to the effects of alcohol. "Like in a party, you will see some individuals become aggressive, some lustful, some over-enthusiastic or sullen," explains Frank Ervin, who directed the study and works as a psychiatry professor at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.
In his 1871 work The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, Charles Darwin described an American spider monkey that, after getting drunk on brandy, decided never to drink again. In this way, the monkey proved itself to be "much wiser than most men," the famous evolutionary theorist wrote. Given what we know now, it would seem that Darwin stumbled on an unusually reasonable monkey.