Roots of human kindness found in bonobos, report says

Roots of human kindness found in bonobos, report says

Durham : NC : USA | Jan 09, 2013 at 8:06 AM PST
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Chimpanzees, both the common chimpanzee and the bonobo, are the closest relative to humans

A new Duke University report indicates that not only do bonobos use sex as the glue to cement virtually all social interactions, but unlike their “regular” or "common" chimpanzee cousins, they happily share food with strangers. In fact, according to the report published in the journal PLoS One, Bonobos even give up their own meal to strangers — but only if the stranger reciprocates with “social interaction” (read: sexual contact, whether homo- or heterosexual).

The researchers are evolutionary anthropologists, Jingzhi Tan and Brian Hare. They write that their findings answer questions about the origins of altruism in human beings.

Chimpanzees and bonobos are the closest primates to humans, sharing some 98 to 99 percent of our genes. Common chimpanzees, however, do not display similar behavior (food sharing) toward strangers.

“If you only studied [common] chimps you would think that humans evolved this trait of sharing with strangers later,” Mr. Tan said. “But now, given that bonobos do this, one scenario is that the common ancestor of chimps, humans and bonobos had this trait.”

The test subjects were all orphaned bonobos at the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The study proceeded thusly: Bonobos were given a pile of food and the opportunity to release either a stranger or a group mate (or both) from other rooms.

The bonobos released the strangers and shared their food. Amazingly, the just-released bonobo would then release the third who might or might not be a stranger to him or her. Didn't matter. The bonobos seem to "value" sharing in a way that common chimps cannot begin to conceive.

“This was shocking to us because chimpanzees are so xenophobic,” Mr. Tan said. “They won’t approach a stranger unless they outnumber them.”

The bonobos, as stated, were not completely selfless, however. They would not share food when no social interaction was forthcoming.

On the other hand, they would help a stranger get food even without social interaction. Tan compared this to the anonymous gift-giving behavior seen in humans.

“It’s like when you donate money and you don’t tell people,” he said, “so there’s no way for you to get any benefit.”


This is an exciting study with all kinds of political implications. Indeed, does this mean that Republicans and conservatives are descended from “regular” or "common" chimps, while Democrats and liberals are the descendants of bonobos?

Seriously, though, one of the first things one learns in any human evolution course is that Homo sapiens are not descended from any of the earth's current non-human primates, including common chimps and bonobos.

It is true, though, that common chimps, bonobos and humans share a common ancestor going back anywhere from 6 to 7 million years ago. It was at that time when our common "family tree" branched off into at least two different directions. One direction led to those whom today we imperiously call the "great apes." And, well...we pretty much know which way and where the other branch went -- and eventually blossomed.


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Chimpanzees, both the common chimpanzee and the bonobo, are the closest relative to humans
Chimpanzees, both the common chimpanzee and the bonobo, are the closest relative to humans
Herbert Dyer, Jr. is based in Chicago, Illinois, United States of America, and is an Anchor on Allvoices.
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