14 February 2014

The difference between the violent chimpanzees and the peace-loving bonobos appears to be linked to the role of their females.

I’VE just watched a fascinating lecture on whether animals have morals. In various laboratory experiments, it’s been shown that capuchin monkeys and dogs do care about how their friends feel.
If they see a friend in pain, they will try and comfort them.
If they see that getting a food reward means that their friend will suffer from an electric shock, they will forego food rather than subject their friend to such pain.
They will help one another to get the same rewards, although they won’t help someone they don’t know.
And they seem to have an inherent sense of fairness, rejecting attempts to being differently rewarded for the same tasks.
So in many ways, they are the same as human beings.
What’s different of course is that they don’t tend to sit around and analyse why all this happens.
The other big difference is that they also don’t tend to punish those who transgress these rules. So they might protest at unfair treatment or go on a hunger strike in support of a friend, but they don’t seek to punish perpetrators of such unfairness.
The experiments also found that capuchin monkeys are quite willing to support other capuchin monkeys that they know and can see, but not those they don’t know and can’t see.
Their first priority is their kith and kin and not strangers, especially anonymous ones. This also differentiates them from humans who will extend a hand to total strangers such as we did during the tsunami and Typhoon Haiyan, with no expectation of reward.
These studies show that although sometimes we claim that morality in humans is determined by culture and religion, some things are probably hard wired into us.
We all have an innate aversion to harm, an inherent sense of fairness, respect for authority and care for our young.
Studies on babies and toddlers have shown that they will cooperate and help others without being asked.
This tends to dissipate though as they get older, though never really disappears since we do see the same traits in adults too. One explanation is that, if we stopped cooperating with one another, pretty soon the human race would simply die off because we do need one another to survive.
The lecture also compared not just morality in animals and humans, but also immorality, specifically violence against others.
I presume violence was chosen because it’s a bit difficult to assess lying and cheating in animals since we don’t speak their language.
And in some things, such as sexual behaviour, we can’t really impose our human values onto them.
The best comparisons are with our closest genetic relatives, chimpanzees and bonobo monkeys. These two groups of animals may seem similar, but behave in very different ways. Chimpanzee society is an extremely violent one.
They not only fight each other within their own community, but also others in other communities and are prone to physical abuse of the female members of their community and infanticide.
The primate expert Jane Goodall studied two communities of chimpanzees in Gombe, Tanzania, which engaged in a four-year war which ended with all the males in the smaller community being killed and the females absorbed into the larger community.
The war was not limited to skirmishes when the two communities chanced upon one another.
The larger one would actually send out raiding parties to seek out and viciously attack members of the smaller one, especially those seen as weak.
Bonobos, on the other hand, are an extremely peaceful society, preferring, literally, to make love and not war.
They never attack each other or outsiders and seem to spend most of their time being very affectionate with one another.
The explanation for this is that female bonobos, unlike chimpanzee females, bond with one another very tightly and stand in solidarity with one another.
As a result, they are able to temper the male instinct for violence and this results in an overall peaceful society.
There may well be many traits we might recognise in ourselves in our primate cousins. It’s worth noting that the only two species that actually wage war on others are chimpanzees and humans.
But there are some differences. For while chimpanzees rely only on their own strength for warfare, humans go on to develop very sophisticated weapons that can kill thousands of strangers thousands of miles away, often without even leaving home.
And if we learn anything from our bonobo cousins, it’s that a society that gives their females a big say in how things are run tends to be a more peaceful one. Easy to see which type of society is likely to advance.
Given the recent monkey-like behaviour we are seeing in our country, we should ask ourselves: are we chimpanzees or bonobos?
> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.