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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Do Bonobos And Chimpanzees Offer A Path To Understanding Human Behavior? | Sheril Kirshenbaum, NPR

What leads people to acts of violence and genocide? What triggers empathy and altruism? Duke evolutionary biologist Brian Hare and research scientist Vanessa Woods believe the answer may be found in the great ape known as the bonobo.
The two biologists studied the differences between bonobos and chimpanzees, and they found "marked diffrences" between how they each react to strangers. According to Kirshenbaum: "A chimp treats the other as an outsider or rival. If food is available, he will hoard it for himself."

But the biologists found bonobos react differently: 
[A] bonobo will treat the stranger as if he is already part of the same group. If his new companion is locked out of his enclosure containing food, the bonobo finds a way to open the door in order to share his meal. And in case you're wondering, there might be some sex involved between them as well.
But so what? Kirshenbaum asks why such experiments, along with accounts of war and peace among other primates, are important to the human species.

She notes that humans are capable of acting at both ends of the spectrum. "[T]here is an aggressive side to humanity that is often also visible in chimpanzee populations," she writes. But humans also have "the capacity to do a tremendous amount of good," as reflected in the "less aggressive bonobos." 

Kirshenbaum concludes (emphasis added):
By understanding all we can about the behavior and biochemistry of both species, evolutionary biologists such as Hare and Woods suspect that we may learn more about what pushes humans toward either extreme. And if we're lucky, that knowledge could be the key to a more peaceful existence for all of us.
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