Mr. Wrangham describes a “ball game” sometimes played by both male chimpanzees and bonobos, in which two males chase each other around a tree trunk trying to grab each other’s testes.
John Hawks, reviewing Richard Wrangham’s “The Goodness Paradox,” The Wall Street Journal
This is it–the ultimate test of primate skills: Testes Bowl LIII, in beautiful downtown . . . actually, there isn’t a downtown, or an uptown, or even a town yet. We’re on the African velde, making our way to front row seats to watch the Tanganyika Chimps take on the Gambia Bonobos in what is sure to be a nut-grabbing classic.
“Dad?” my son says, his little eyes as big as kola nuts, he’s so excited to be here.
“Will you let me play nut-grabbing when I’m older?”
It’s a tough question, one that his mother and I have argued about. Sure, nut-grabbing helps build admirable monkey virtues such as ferocity, retaliation and spiteful vindictiveness, but you look at these old apes who spent their careers grabbing each other’s testicles for sport and they seem a pitiable lot. “Remember that time I grabbed your crown jewels and threw you for a ten-yard loss? Oook Oook Oook!” Stuff like that.
“Well, son, we’ll climb down out of that tree when the time comes. Maybe they’ll have improved equipment then.”
His mouth curls up into a little frown, and who can blame him? He’s a red-blooded young primate, and doesn’t give a gazelle’s ass what the schoolmarms say about nut-grabbing being harmful to the players and to society, fostering “toxic monkulinity.” Who wouldn’t run from a bunch of lily-livered do-gooders who want to deprive our offspring of the fun and camaraderie of organized violence and blunt trauma to the head–not to mention the cheerleaders!
We sit down and I buy him some souvenirs; official National Nut-Grabbing League licensed swag, with the pirate-proof hologram sticker to assure us we aren’t paying our hard earned nuts to some loser who’s trying to divert a raindrop of lucre from the torrent of money that flows the NNGL’s way.
Father and son mug for a selfie at the big game.
After an hour of pre-game ceremonies and sideline chatter by voluptuous arm-candy reporters, we’re set for the primates’ species anthem:
Oooka nurg Gralla bee–
Blar de urt norka boo.
The singer, a young chimpette, does her best, but she misses the high note in the last chorus. The crowd gives her a big hand–or they may just be relieved that their primitive musical ordeal is over.
The Bonobos win the toss and elect to be chased, rather than chase. The officiating crew is likely to be a little cautious after a blown call in the Eastern Conference finals sent Burundi fans home disappointed, so their head coach figures it’s best to start off on offense.
The whistle blows and the Bonobos are off like a shot, using the short strides that characterize their “West Coast offense,” running up the score as they circle a Baobab tree six times in quick succession. It’s going to be hard for the Chimps to stay close if this turns into a footrace, I say inwardly, anticipating the mindless monkey-level chatter that our supposedly advanced primate descendants will use someday in broadcast booths.
“I think the team that scores the most points is gonna win.”
I’m feeling pretty confident in my amateur prognostication when J.K. Kong–a beefy chimp with a good “nose for the nut” as the coaches like to say–makes a diving grab of a Bonobo testicle for the first score.
“Awesome!” my boy shouts, and turns to give me a high five. (SPOILER ALERT: Male celebratory techniques will not advance much in the next 6,000 years.)
“That was a good one!” I say, “but ‘awesome’ should be used sparingly if we’re ever going to develop a spoken language with nuance. It should be reserved for those occasions when . . .”
My learned explanation is drowned out by a groan from the crowd. The Bonobo coach has tossed his challenge bag of kola nuts, so play stops while the refs move in for a closer look.
“Wow–that is one humongous set of nuts!”
“What’s happening dad?”
“The bonobos are saying the chimp tackler didn’t really grab him by the nuts.”
“How can they tell?”
“Oh, they’ll be able to tell all right–don’t you worry,” I say to him as I tousle his hair. What does he know–his testicles haven’t descended yet.
Fairness is important, don’t get me wrong, but the addition of quasi-judicial remedies to what was once a free-spirited game is turning nut-grabbing into a slow slog whose primary purpose is to sell fermented beverages to dopes like me. I could see dimly in the future an erudite supporter of tradition who would say that nut-grabbing combines the two worst features of primate life; violence and committee meetings.
The refs make their decision and the head of the crew turns to the crowd to announce it.
“The ruling on the field is that there was a completed nut grab. Upon examination of the expression of excruciating pain on the face of the Bonobo runner, the call on the field is confirmed.”
“What does that mean, dad?”
I looked into his eyes, and debated for a second whether it was too soon to explain the facts of life to him. Kids grow up so fast, you want them to enjoy the innocence of childhood for as long as possible. Still, he was getting to be mature. He was twelve in chimp years, on the verge of adolescence. If he didn’t hear it from me, he’d learn it in the streets. I decided to plunge ahead.
“You know about time-outs, right?”
“That’s when mom puts me in the corner for flinging feces or something bad like that.”
“Right. So what that means is the Bonobos are charged with a time-out.”