Human Kindness - In Bonobos

Bonobos and humans share some 99% of their genes so it's hardly surprising that we share some behavioural traits too.

As this news item from Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, USA explains:

A passer-by drops something and you spring to pick it up. Or maybe you hold the door for someone behind you. Such acts of kindness to strangers were long thought to be unique to humans, but recent research on bonobos suggests our species is not as exceptional in this regard as we like to think.

Famously friendly apes from Africa’s Congo Basin, bonobos will go out of their way to help strangers too, said Jingzhi Tan, a postdoctoral associate in evolutionary anthropology at Duke University. A previous study by Tan and associate professor of evolutionary anthropology Brian Hare found that bonobos share food with strangers. Now, in a new series of experiments, the team is trying to find out just how far this kindness goes.

Let's get Biblical for a moment.

Remember the parable of the Good Samaritan? This is often held up by Christians as an example of Jesus teaching us how to behave. Don't 'pass by on the other side' but do what you can to help, not because it's inherently good but because Jesus said so. Or rather, it is inherently good because Jesus said so. Presumably, we are expected to believe that people never used to help strangers before Jesus told us it was 'good' to do so, and people who have never heard of Jesus or the Bible still don't because they don't see any reason to.

Like so much else about religion, you need to ignore reality to believe it, or in this case to believe you're the moral superior of others.

But actually, any proper reading of the parable shows that whoever wrote it assumed that those listening to the tale would already have known that helping a stranger in trouble was a 'good thing to do'. In fact, the Good Samaritan did good not because someone had told him he should but because he knew it was the right things to do. In context, Jesus is supposedly answering the question, "Who is my neighbour?" The answer is, thy neighbour is anyone who needs your help. The author of the tale was assuming the listeners would recognise an act of kindness as a good thing. Nowhere does Jesus actually say, "There you go! That's what you're to do in future - or else!"

But enough of the Bible and the Christian belief that they alone have good morals because Jesus told them how to behave and they have a handbook. Needing a handbook is not a sign of morality but of sociopathy or even psychopathy. Like bonobos, we are (normally) innately moral because, with our evolutionary history, making a good first impression with an unsolicited act of kindness is a strategy which delivers the best outcome in the long run. A small initial investment could have a big payout later on. (Yes, behaviour is ultimately selfish, as any motivational psychologist will tell you!)

Now, the science behind the finding.

The research was carried out in the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo by Jingzhi Tan, Dan Ariely & Brian Hare of Department of Evolutionary Anthropology and Fuqua School of Business, Duke University. It was published open access yesterday in Scientific Reports.

Modern humans live in an “exploded” network with unusually large circles of trust that form due to prosociality toward unfamiliar people (i.e. xenophilia). In a set of experiments we demonstrate that semi-free ranging bonobos (Pan paniscus) – both juveniles and young adults – also show spontaneous responses consistent with xenophilia. Bonobos voluntarily aided an unfamiliar, non-group member in obtaining food even when he/she did not make overt requests for help. Bonobos also showed evidence for involuntary, contagious yawning in response to videos of yawning conspecifics who were complete strangers. These experiments reveal that xenophilia in bonobos can be unselfish, proactive and automatic. They support the first impression hypothesis that suggests xenophilia can evolve through individual selection in social species whenever the benefits of building new bonds outweigh the costs. Xenophilia likely evolved in bonobos as the risk of intergroup aggression dissipated and the benefits of bonding between immigrating members increased. Our findings also mean the human potential for xenophilia is either evolutionarily shared or convergent with bonobos and not unique to our species as previously proposed.

One experiment demonstrated that bonobos will spontaneously help a stranger get food, even where there is no payback. To show this, sixteen bonobos were put one at a time into one of two adjacent rooms, separated by a fence. The empty room had a piece of apple hanging on a rope, visible but out of reach. The rope could be released if the bonobo climbed up the fence to reach a wooden pin that fixed the rope to the ceiling. This would cause the piece of apple to fall to the ground in the empty room.

They found that bonobos were four times more likely to release the rope when a stranger was in the other room and it made no difference whether the stranger was gesturing for help or not. Help was freely given even when unsolicited.

In a second experiment, bonobos were shown a video of yawning bonobos. Like humans, bonobos yawn when others do and it made no difference whether the yawning bonobos in the video were strangers of familiar members of their own group. This demonstration of 'emotional contagion', a basic form of empathy, shows bonobos are just as sensitive to the emotional mood of strangers as they are to those from their own group.

It seems that, just like their close cousins humans, bonobos have highly-developed empathy and an innate morality which includes lending a helping hand even to strangers. It's even more curious that some Christians like to pretend they have higher morals because they were told to behave that way, when, as we can see, even bonobos know it's the right thing to do. In fact, this social ethic is another form of the 'golden rule' - treat others as you would like them to treat you - which is universal to all human groups and now, it seems, to bonobos too. It is the basic principle behind all morality.

But looking around at the way we treat strangers, especially those looking for our help we call 'asylum seekers' or 'refugees', it seems that this trait of innate xenophilia is much more highly developed in our bonobo cousins than in us.

Source: Rosa Rubicondior