Cooperative Apes

  • By David Levin
  • Posted 08.05.10
  • NOVA scienceNOW

Anthropologist Brian Hare explains why studying the placid nature of bonobos, a close relative of chimpanzees, might help shed light on how humans evolved.


To understand human evolution, anthropologist Brian Hare is studying one of our close primate relatives, bonobos.


Cooperative Apes

Posted August 5, 2010

DAVID LEVIN: You're listening to a NOVA podcast. I'm David Levin.

BRIAN HARE: Why are we special? Why is it we build buildings? Why is it we fly planes? Why is it we have institutions, politicians, you know, society, culture, language, etcetera?

DAVID LEVIN: Brian Hare is an anthropologist at Duke University. He's trying to answer some big questions about how our minds evolved. To do that, he's studying some of our closest primate relatives.

BRIAN HARE: So in studying primates, what we realized was, "Gosh," you know, "something that seems really bizarre about humans, and something that may be really important that allows us to do all the things that we do that we think are really unique and special about our species, is something very, very simple." We're extraordinarily tolerant of one another. Within our own groups—that may be your nationality, your religion, your race—you're extremely tolerant, relative to another species of primate.

DAVID LEVIN: In other words, humans within the same social groups can share things with each other. We can work together calmly. Hare thinks this emotional control may have been the key to the evolution of modern humans—and human culture.

BRIAN HARE: When we're thinking about human evolution and how we change from our common ancestor, we need to think about emotions. Really, tolerance is an emotional thing. We're able to control our emotional reactivity.

DAVID LEVIN: That's a trait some our close primate relatives don't have. Chimpanzees, for instance, often settle disputes with violence, attacking and killing outsiders. But another species of primate, bonobos, acts completely differently. They cooperate with others. They share with their peers. They have all the traits we learned in kindergarten.

BRIAN HARE: Bonobos and chimpanzees have very different emotional systems. And that maps perfectly onto their tolerance. Because it ends up bonobos are incredibly tolerant within their group, and they're even tolerant between groups. In some sense, they're better than people. Chimpanzees, on the other hand, are not so tolerant within their groups or between their groups.

DAVID LEVIN: Hare thinks that if we can figure out what makes bonobos more tolerant than chimps, it could shed light on what makes humans more tolerant as well.

BRIAN HARE: So if we pay attention and do comparisons between these two species, we're gonna make some really strong inferences about human evolution that we hadn't realized we could do before.

DAVID LEVIN: One of which, Hare hopes, is pinpointing the genetic difference between the violent nature of chimps and the more placid nature of bonobos.

BRIAN HARE: They're so closely related—just a few tenths of a percentage in terms of the difference of their genome. If we can figure out the genetics of why we have one close relative who is the peacemaker and we have one that is much more belligerent, well, then we can get to the biological basis of what allows for tolerance in close relatives. If we can figure out what's going on in them, then we can potentially figure out the genetics or the biology of what happened in humans, during human evolution.

DAVID LEVIN: In a few years, Hare thinks that might be possible. The chimpanzee genome was first mapped in 2005, and the bonobo genome is only a few months away. By comparing the two, Hare thinks he might find the answers he's looking for.

BRIAN HARE: It's so exciting. Bonobos, chimpanzees, other animals—if we can figure out how they think and why they were shaped the way that they were, then we'll understand ourselves. And so I can't think of any more noble endeavor than trying to not only learn about ourselves, but learn about these other minds so that we can appreciate them and ourselves more than we do today.



Produced by
David Levin
Interview by
Julia Cort


© Ronald van der Beek/iStockphoto

Related Links

  • The Bonobo in All of Us

    Primatologist Frans de Waal on what the "make-love-not-war" primate tells us about ourselves

  • The Secret Life of Laurie Santos

    Meet Laurie Santos. She studies evolutionary psychology in primates and photographs feet. Really.

  • Our Family Tree

    See (and hear) where you stand among the great apes in this audiovisual interactive.

  • Ape Genius

    Experts zero in on what separates humans from our closest living relatives.


You need the Flash Player plug-in to view this content.