Yet Another Heart-Warming Way Apes Better Us at Being Human

All of us admire someone who demonstrates common courtesies such as holding the door open for someone. But many people are not aware that it is not just humans who show us human decencies.

Bonobos, who are considered the friendliest hippies in the primate world, are always willing to help a stranger even when there is nothing to be gained from doing so; Duke University researchers have reported in the publication Scientific Reports. This indicates that we humans aren’t so unique in our kindness to strangers. It also suggests that this behavior could have even evolved among our closest relatives, and actually depends on social needs.

“We’re trying to understand what’s similar to humans, what’s different to humans,” stated Jingzhi Tan, who was a co-author for the study.

Was Their Kindness Reward-Based?

The scientist saw that these bonobos were willing to share their food with complete strangers. But they also wanted to see if the apes would be willing to help strangers without getting a reward at all.

These apes came from the sanctuary of located in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There the scientist put pairs of bonobos who did not know each other into adjacent rooms only separated by fences. Then they hoisted an apple up over one room. If the bonobo who was inside the other room tried to climb the fence, it would cause the apple to fall—and only the stranger would be able to retrieve it.

Without even waiting for a cue or incentive, several of the bonobos would drop the fruit into the room of the stranger. If the adjacent room was empty, the bonobos were less likely to drop the apple, which suggests that they were definitely motivated to help the strangers next door.

“If you’re helping, you have to help without being asked,” Tan noted. “Helping strangers must be altruistic. It must be unselfish.”

Their Levels of Empathy was Tested

The second part of this research would test how conscious the Good Samaritan response was by letting a team of bonobos view short video clips of other bonobos. Those tested actually knew a few of the animals who were starring in the videos, but the others were complete strangers.

The videos showed the different apes yawning or having neutral facial expressions, and the researchers were eager to see if those being tested  would yawn as a response—which is a sign of empathy—with their friends or with the strangers. As it turned out, yawns from the unknown apes turned out to be just as contagious as those from their friends.

Since Tan and fellow anthropologist Brian Hare had previously studied food-sharing among bonobos, Tan claims that they expected the bonobos to be friendly with the apes they didn’t know.

 “When the two groups meet, they will not be as aggressive as chimpanzees,” Tan claims. “It’s actually quite common they would just peacefully interact with each other.”

Family Affairs

The behavior of the bonobos is very much a contrast to that of the chimpanzees, their much more aggressive cousins. These two great apes actually share more than 98% of their DNA with one another, and also with humans.

The fact is that bonobos prefer to live in a peaceful, matriarchal community where they utilize complicated vocal sounds to speak with one another, and where sex plays huge part in particular social situations. If they ever get stressed, bonobos choose hugs over violence. Conversely, chimpanzees are well known for their violent and aggressive behavior.

“This is stuff that you just wouldn’t see in a chimpanzee society,” says Zanna Clay, who is a psychology professor at the prestigious Durham University located in England. “You wouldn’t be able to run this experiment with chimpanzees because they’re so hostile.”

Tan claims that chimpanzees will only help if requested, and they yawn contagiously only within their own little groups.

And since humans, bonobos, and chimpanzees are very closely related, this research has hinted at shared ways of interacting with strangers among these three groups. Female bonobos will usually depart from their family group when they become adults, so being able to get along with strangers is very important to them.

“Warlike hostility toward outgroups is just one part of our evolutionary history. Humans have both capacities,” Clay claims. “We didn’t get to where we are now by working alone.”