Bonobos and the Emergence of Culture

In this TED Talk Susan Savage-Rumbaugh discusses bonobos housed in a bispecies environment that have been taught to communicate using pictographs. In the talk she suggests that biology isn't what made humans unique from nonhuman apes, but rather argues that it was cultural developments and social learning. Quite obviously there are some biological differences (around 1% of our genes differ, some of them coding for proteins important for brain formation). However, I challenge you to watch Kanzi build a fire and perform activities that require precise hand-eye coordination (including the making of stone tools) and conclude that this is a difference of kind rather than merely a difference of degree. While there may be a subtle form of coaching in some of the activities performed by the bonobos in Savage-Rumbaugh's care (and some of the chalk drawings used for communication could be over interpreted), I see no reason to assume that the learning taking place couldn't also occur organically in the wild. However, to my knowledge no bonobo has ever shown a penchant for playing Pac Man in the forests of Lomako or Lac Tumba.

To quote Monica Uddin and colleagues from their 2003 paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (focusing on chimpanzees, but which applies equally for bonobos):

Traditionally, humans are presumed to have superior cognitive abilities and, thereby, to be very different from other animals. This presumed superiority lies in the supposed uniqueness of such human abilities as producing cultural artifacts and engaging in language and symbolic thought. Recent work, however, shows that chimpanzees, who are the sister group of humans, engage in culture, use tools, and display rudimentary forms of language. Moreover, with regard to DNA changes that alter proteins and are favored by natural selection, chimpanzees diverge about as much from the most recent common human-chimpanzee ancestor as do humans.

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Not a biological difference, but culture? I don't see it. If anything, I see deluded researchers seeing what is not there. I see no creativity, only aping behavior. The ape may be able to strike a flame from a lighter that the humans conceived, manufactured, and placed in the ape's hand, to light a fire the humans had constructed. My dog can do almost as well.

The ape can be taught to flake a rock, but can it find the correct rock in the forest? It can bang on a piano, but does it even know that it does not produce music? At least they keep the animals on leashes. Clearly, when unleashed, the animals are smart enough to flee.

By Michael Gersh (not verified) on 09 Jan 2010 #permalink

I'd guess that the lack of fully opposable thumbs is why bonobos, chimps & gorillas don't make tools as readly as humans. Has anyone tried encouraging these to modify natural objects such as sticks to fit their (the apes) hands rather than just copying human tools?

We really need to keep these alive so roaches & rats won't be our only inheritors.

Opposable thumbs is just part of it, as there is certainly more than one way to make a tool. According to Schick, et al. (1999), Kanzi's preferred method of flint-knapping is different from the human method as the human method is difficult given his hand-structure. Instead, he prefers smashing rocks against each other and then selecting the best flakes for cutting. Though Kanzi seems to have devised this method of knapping (if you can still call it that) on his own, I also agree with Michael (above), in that it is important that Kanzi was originally trained to knap. The initial cultural transmission was essential to Kanzi's subsequent innovation, leading to questions of what the bonobos really can come up with on their own.

By David Ruskin (not verified) on 09 Jan 2010 #permalink

@Rob: Agreed. I'm nervous about how the volcanic eruption in DR Congo has affected the chimp populations nearby. Bonobos aren't affected, as far as I know.

Chimps and bonobos regularly manipulate sticks in order to go termite fishing or to use as a pole to navigate deep marshes. Others will locate specific rocks that are useful for opening nuts and will carry them for use at a later time. They also creatively use their environment to solve problems. This video from National Geographic highlights their ability to respond flexibly and creatively to novel situations.

making fire, flinting rocks..hmm..but Pac Man? they can play Pac Man? That's awesome!

Don't you understand that if the ape-human difference is even as little as 5 or 10 percent "cultural" than the human-human difference is likely to be 100 percent cultural????!!?? If that is so, then how can the human races be so radically different in intelligence and other features, which we KNOW is caused entirely by genetic differences!!!!!!

I insist that you delete this blog post immediately. This blog post is a fly in my lily white ointment.

ABRSC- You are wasting your time when the important issue is whether or not there are race-based g-spots which can be determined by the size of the brain case.

Is the g-spot double-entendre an internet cliche or did you just make it up?

By Anonymous (not verified) on 10 Jan 2010 #permalink

I found the comparison to Tasmanian aboriginals unsettling, so had had a quick look at……

There are some references there suggesting they had and used fire (but not the means to create fire, they carried around embers), and also that they had stone tools. Maybe she was stretching her analogy a bit to make her point stronger.

@SCPritch: I flinched when I first heard that too. But she wasn't saying that Tasmanians were more "ape-like" only that the firm line separating humans and other apes may not be as clear as people used to think. Nonhuman primates have both culture and social learning. It's unknown what they could accomplish given the right environmental conditions.

The point in referring to the Tasmanians is that having genetically modern humans does not automatically produce a modern society, or even what we often observe as primitive societies. Modern humans existed for 10s of thousands of years before making simple innovations. These skills were passed on culturally to subsequent generations and shared with other groups. Now I don't believe that a bonobo raised in a purely human environment will be just like a person, but it is amazing that they have the capacity such intelligent behaviors. How different would the behaviors of these bonobos be from those of genetically modern humans of 100,000 years ago (which lack our culture)?

Wow, it seems that environment and culture go hand in hand, I presume. Also, im wondering that with showing them our technology, language, and etc, will that effect their evolution? I mean isn't it possible for a dependecy factor? How will they fight predators if they diversify and become each others predators in competition for resources, particularly food? Will they discover fire and follow our foot steps, or maybe peak to our limitations and become habitat changes?

Before we nominate the Bonobo for full membership in the human race, I will wait for a single original thought to be expressed by them. Aping behavior, no matter how complex, is mere mimicry. At the end of the video, I saw clearly why we are in so much trouble in science today. The entire audience was not merely obsequious, many were reverent. The entire idea of science is skepticism, until, and even after, proof is offered. Going along to get along, or allowing one's prejudices to color one's judgement, should not be a part of science.

I am not saying that the Bonobo is the equivalent of a macaque, I am saying that a dedicated researcher who has dedicated her life to the study of these animals may see things that are not truly there. She is invested in her research. We are, or should be, a skeptical audience. Clearly some posters, like her students, are cheering on an outcome that they came here with, already fully formed.

Where is the evidence? Those leashes speak volumes about the underlying reality of this research. The Bonobos in the video are not friends, they are clearly pets.

By Michael Gersh (not verified) on 12 Jan 2010 #permalink