Apes & Humans

H UMAN NATURE IS A MIX OF SELFISH CRUELTY AND COOPERATIVE KINDNESS. As the aftermath of hurricane Katrina so powerfully demonstrated, some people will open their homes to strangers during a crisis, while others will run riot. Wherein lie the roots of this paradox?

According to primatorogist Frans de Waal, we need look no further than our close cousins, the chimpanzees and bonobos, to find out.

Humans share not only a common ancestor with chimpanzees and bonobos but common behaviors too. Chimps are socially calculating, and they can be decidedly nasty. Bonobos, on the other hand, tend to be more egalitarian, and they often stave off conflict with lots of sex. Yet neither species is entirely vicious or always conciliatory, and each seems to experience love, empathy, and sharing—for good reason. Like humans, both species are social animals, and in order to survive in an unpredictable world, they must strike a balance between the two extremes.

DeWaal makes his case primarily with engaging anecdotes drawn from a lifetime of observing primates in captivity. At the Arnhem Zoo in the Netherlands, for example, he watched male chimpanzees join forces for months to topple the highest -ranking male, females band together to protect each other from male aggression, and the whole colony dole out revenge when required. In one case, two young chimps lingered in the outdoor enclosure one evening and delayed dinner for everyone else. The next morning, the rest of the group cornered and beat them. That evening, the youngsters were the first to come in.

On the other hand, de Waal also saw impressive signs of reconciliation and attachment among chimpanzees. The animals make close friendships, hoot in celebration, and kiss each other in greeting. Such behavior is even more exaggerated among the lightly built bonobos, each of which uses sex with every member of the group— male and female both—to say hello or calm tensions . As with chimps, however, female bonobos have more social power, and males can be highly competitive.

Assuming that social behavior has a genetic component, it is likely that humans have inherited similar tendencies toward both aggression and mutual aid. Thus the view of human nature as irredeemably cruel, warlike, and selfish—or as inherently peace loving—is a mistake, argues de Waal. We are a species “capable of unbelievable destruction of both its environment and its own kind, yet at the same time possess[ing] wells of empathy and love deeper than ever seen before.’                                                                             —Meredith F Small



December 2005. (Pg. 78)


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