Debunking myths on genetics and DNA

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Hail to the Bonobos!

Is human nature prone to violence or is cooperation the dominant trait? The latest issue of Science magazine is dedicated to "Human Conflict" and touches a variety of topics, from racism to terrorism, addressing the question: are we good or evil? Is our true nature aggressive and violent, but tamed by social constraints, or is it the other way around, and we are in fact neutrally inclined towards empathy and cooperation, while violence and aggression are the exceptions?

Concepts like "survival of the fittest" and the "selfishness of genes" (a concept I truly dislike, I'm just quoting it here because it seems to be a widespread view) have reinforced the general idea that our true nature is geared towards conflict. Life is conquered through competition.

In [1], de Waal argues that while after World War II the dominant view was that human nature was dominantly aggressive, there isn't much evidence to favor this view.
"During most of our prehistory, we were nomadic hunter-gatherers, whose cultures are nowadays not particularly known for warfare. They do occasionally raid, ambush, and kill their neighbors, but more often trade with them, intermarry, and permit travel through their territories. Hunter-gatherers illustrate a robust potential for peace and cooperation."
Some of our ancestors, like the chimpanzee Pan troglodytes, can be very aggressive and their territorial encounters are often lethal. However, among all chimpanzees, guess who's our closest relative? The Bonobo! if you are not familiar with this wonderful animal, check out what the Wikipedia page says:
"The bonobo is popularly known for its high levels of sexual behavior. Sex functions in conflict appeasement, affection, social status, excitement, and stress reduction. It occurs in virtually all partner combinations and in a variety of positions. This is a factor in the lower levels of aggression seen in the bonobo when compared to the common chimpanzee and other apes. Bonobos are perceived to be matriarchal; females tend to collectively dominate males by forming alliances and use sexuality to control males. A male's rank in the social hierarchy is often determined by his mother's rank."
Such behaviors force us to review the original theory that conflict is the driving force of survival. If that were truly the case, why do some chimpanzee show reconciliatory behaviors such as kissing and hugging after a fight? Furthermore, de Waal argues, all functions that are necessary for survival, such as sex, eating, nursing, and socializing, are associated with a sense of fulfillment. This is not the case with killing and aggressiveness.

Not only do bonobos show signs of empathy in their behavior (such as comforting one another after a disturbance), but also in the anatomy of their brains:
"This species has more gray matter in brain regions involved in the perception of distress, including the right dorsal amygdala and right anterior insula, and a better developed circuitry for inhibiting aggression."
Though highly speculative, evidence of empathy comes also from the fact that monkeys, like humans, have "mirror neurons," neurons that fire when a stimulus is experienced as well as when when, instead, it's observed. Since empathy involves embracing another individual's feelings, mirror neurons are often considered a sign of empathy. A wide range of empathy-based behaviors have been observed in primates, mice, and elephants, from mice discarding food in order to help a trapped companion, to incentive-free assistance in apes. And finally, contrary to aggression and violence, altruism is often followed by a sense of fulfillment.

EDIT: I really appreciate the discussion that this particular post sparked. I just want to add one more thought. I think the general conception has always been that aggression, lethal confrontations, and competition for resources are intrinsic to primitive animal behaviors. On the other hand, we think of sentiments like love, compassion, and empathy in particular as "higher" sentiments, something that pertains to civilization and hence to higher intelligence. This particular paper intrigues me because, without proving anything, it provides evidence to the opposite: it seems to indicate that empathy pertains to all animals, from mice to apes, not just to humans, and that evolution favors cooperation, while disfavoring disruptive confrontations. It is true that with limited resources aggressive behaviors increase, but if you take a society like the bonobos and observe it when in equilibrium with its own environment, then one can't help but wonder: if the bonobos manage to resolve their issue peacefully, why can't we do the same? It seems to me that while empathy is shared across the animal kingdom, envy, jealousy and greed are uniquely human. That certainly puts the phrase "higher intelligence" in perspective.

[1] de Waal, F. (2012). The Antiquity of Empathy Science, 336 (6083), 874-876 DOI: 10.1126/science.1220999


  1. Interesting development. Thanks for sharing. This seems to contradict a very interesting analysis I watched on PBS just last night ("Civilization: the West and the rest" By Niall-Ferguson). NF is 'only' a historian, but he does have some valid observations, IMO, among them the fact that the West won over other civilizations (China, the Incas, The Ottomans)due to higher competitiveness (aggression) among other factors. Which does seem more Chimp-like. Hmmm. Interesting, again. We'll have to see if further research favors the Bonobo proximity... Then we'll have to find an alternativbe explanation for our agressiveness

  2. Thanks so much for your comment, John!

    Here's my personal interpretation of this paper and my take-home message: I think the point is that there's no prehistorical or genetic evidence that our "nature" is per se aggressive. There has been a lot of debate on whether we are "geared" toward competition, and by that I mean that it is somehow encoded in our genes. I think de Waal's point is that it's not and that any aggressive behavior we've witnessed through history had to be some kind of acquired behavior and is certainly NOT justifiable through some kind of "selective" pressure, if you will.

    Again, this is my personal interpretation.

  3. I think we're born to be aggressive, something has to die so that something else can live.

    To co-operate is more like an after thought/ result of intelligence and self consciousness.

    We're still young and primitive as a species, another million years, human race will look at us and glad they weren't born at our age... (If we have not already wipe ourselves off the face of the earth)

    Well, I'm no scientist, just my own thought.

  4. thanks for your comment, Nicholas.

    I don't know what we're born to be, but I think this paper points at both archeological and phylogenetic evidence that seems to indicate that cooperation is "rewarded" through evolution, rather than competition (as it had been previously thought). I don't know how self-conscious the bonobos are when they show empathy, and yet they have developed this wonderful, peaceful system of dealing with conflicts.

    this doesn't mean that humans are not aggressive; we are and wars and genocides have happened throughout history.

  5. If you're into Frans de Waal, I think you'll really enjoy his book "The Ape and the Sushi Master"

  6. Really interesting! It seems to me that humans are strongly social, so much so that our "family" (vs. enemies) has been getting larger and larger with time. We have gone from being warring small tribes where warfare was a means to high status and recognition, to a huge tribe integrated by trade. I've seen such changes even during my lifetime -- our (USA) Cold War enemies are now major trading partners. So it is hard to convince me that humans are basically agressive -- something is pushing us to be empathetic to an ever-widening sphere of beings ... even other species. But a friend once pointed out that affluence is a factor -- if we run out of food, water, fuel and other resources, our good nature may change for the worse.

  7. Yes, I agree -- scarcity of resources will definitely affect everything. Thanks, Hollis!

  8. It seems to me this whole debate rests upon a false dichotomy - we are either naturally nasty or naturally nice.

    Anyone who has watched a toddler play can tell you: we're both. We have natural impulses to be kind, generous, empathic and loving. And we have natural impulses to be aggressive, competitive, domineering and cruel. Which is expressed depends on the situation.

    Nature versus nurture is, likewise, a false dichotomy. All behavior is a product of both. The question we should be asking is, what environments tend to produce more good people, and how can we make our environment more like those ones?

  9. I am a game theorist, coming at it from economics, and I'm interested in all disciplines to which it might be applied. One important lesson is that appropriate strategies depend greatly upon the games you play.

    In biology, the choice of genes depends greatly upon the environment from which the critter lives. For some environments, selfish genes lead to selfish, aggressive individuals, but others lead to cooperative, peaceful individuals.

    Usually cooperating with individuals with whom you interact with repeatedly, but being wary and possibly aggressive to strangers are good strategies. Living in an area much easier to defend than to take over (think New Zealand or Hopi Indians) can lead to a pretty peaceful existence, living in one where defense has no advantage can lead to violence (think Poland or Sioux).

    Is there any difference in environments for chimps and bonobos that would lead to their differences?


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