The more we learn, the narrower the gap between human brains and animal brains becomes.
The collapsing divisions between animal and human minds is exactly what a group of scientists gathered to discuss on Saturday, June 5, at a World Science Festival panel, “All Creatures Great and Smart.” WNYC radio host Jad Abumrad mediated the talk.
The first topic of conversation was a behavior known as altruism: selflessly helping a stranger. Brian Hare, who studies ape psychology at Duke University, described a recent experiment on this kind of cooperation in bonobos—primates that are in the same genus as chimpanzees.
“We wanted to challenge that notion that humans are unique and test whether one of our closest relatives is capable of voluntarily sharing,” Hare said. In the study, published earlier this year in Current Biology, researchers showed a bonobo into a room with some food inside. Instead of hogging all the grub, the bonobo consistently chose to unlock the door of an adjacent room and share the food with an unfamiliar bonobo.
The exact intentions behind this altruistic behavior remain unclear. Bonobos could expect a stranger to return the favor in the future, or “they could just be saying, ‘You know what? I just want to go on a blind date,'” said Hare.
But “the smartest thing about bonobos is that they live in a society with very little violence,” said Vanessa Woods, a science communicator and researcher at Duke, who is married to Hare. Woods explained how close-knit groups of females work together to keep the peace in bonobo societies, recounting an incident in which five unrelated female bonobos chased down a male bonobo who slapped another female for no reason. “One male can be stronger than one female, but no male is stronger than five females,” Woods said.
There is still one thing that we humans do better than any other creature.
We age beautifully.