You can read the transcript for this episode below
Have you ever thought about how friendly you are or how your self-domestication is coming along? And what if kids, not adults, males or females, swayed the tides of power ranking in society? For answers to those and many more questions about who apes like us really are we’ll be visiting this time on Talking Apes with Dr. Brian Hare who’s been looking at our modern ape cousins, the Bonobos, for clues. He’s also been digging through the cognitive closet of our past for what treasures that might reveal.
Dr. Hare is a professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University. There he researches the evolution of cognition by looking both at us and our closest primate cousins, the great apes. His quest to understand us has taken him from the steamy hearts of Africa’s Congo Rainforest to the chilly hinterlands of Siberia.
I’m Gerry Ellis, and you are listening to Talking Apes, where we explore the world of apes and primates with experts, conservationists, and passionate primate lovers from around the world.
Talking Apes is a podcast that gets to the very heart of what’s happening with and to apes like us. The Talking Apes podcast is made possible by generous support from listeners like you to nonprofit GLOBIO, at globio.org.
Dr. Hare, welcome to Talking Apes.
Thank you. It’s so fun to be with you.
You know, I have to admit, the friendlier ape in me, wants to just call you Brian. So I hope that’s okay. I feel like from reading your books and watching the Ted Talks and videos that you and your partner Vanessa Woods have done, I feel like I’ve known you for a few years.
You’re welcome to call me Brian. No problem.
So we both share this passion for, for apes, that’s why this show’s called Talking Apes. It’s as much us as it is any of the other apes that are out there in the world.
Well, it’s exciting to be on a show dedicated to such a cool topic.
You know, to be honest, when we first started thinking about having a guest on, in February (this is World Bonobo Month) I reached out to a mutual friend of ours, Richard Wrangham at Harvard. And without hesitation he said ‘Call Brian at Duke’. Now, I don’t know if he was just trying to get you back for being a rotten student or something, but he really did feel like you were the person to talk to when it came to Bonobos.
Well, it’s largely Richard’s fault, any success that I had working with Bonobos, because not only did Richard inspire the connection between some of the previous work I’ve been doing on chimpanzee cognition and noble cognition, but he also sort of said, look, if you’re gonna make big advances, you need to go to Africa and work in some of the sanctuaries there for orphans of the bushmeat trade. And I ended up going with Richard to Lola Ya Bonobo. He took me personally to Lola Ya Bonobo which is the sanctuary in Kinshasa where we did all of our research, and he helped us make that connection and build that link. And so it really is his fault.
Well, you know, he’s an amazingly humble guy. And talking about friendly people – he never mentioned a word about taking you to the Congo – and in going through, especially your latest books, you know, Survival of the Friendliest, there’s so much work that you’ve been doing around cognition, self-domestication, and all of those things. And I wanna get into that because it’s incredibly fascinating, and especially it fits right in with the, the sort of the parent, I guess, to this, this program Talking Apes, and that’s Apes Like Us. And so I want to dive into that. But before we get there, maybe you could explain to those who are just tuning in, What are Bonobos? Where did you and Vanessa and now Richard, I guess, have to go to see them and why?
First of all, the most exciting thing to learn about bonobos is that they’re the only great ape that has never been observed to kill another individual of their own kind. And if that doesn’t hook you to wanna learn more about them, I don’t know what will. And so then everything else I tell you is to help us get to the point where we can understand how could it be that these amazing beings we share the planet with never murder. And what makes it remarkable is that they are one of our two closest living primate relatives. It’s like having two cousins. Everybody knows about chimpanzees being our closest primate relative, but not as many people are familiar that we actually have two closest relatives, because how can you have two closest relatives?
Actually, when it comes to relatives, you can have two or three or five closest relatives. And so in the case of our own family, chimpanzees and bonobos are like having first cousins. One’s a girl, one’s a boy. They’re both your first cousins, but they’re different from each other. So they’re equally related to you. And chimpanzees and bonobos are extremely closely related to each other because they have a common ancestor that was like a parent – ancestor – to the two of them. That common ancestor separated from our own lineage probably around 7 million years ago. So if you think about it as more like a genealogy of a family, instead of like a hierarchy, bonobos being our closest relatives together with chimpanzees makes more sense.
So then this mystery of the fact that they’ve never been observed to kill becomes even more perplexing given that what we know about chimpanzees now is that chimpanzees commit infanticide. So they will occasionally kill infants of neighboring groups or even of their own group. They have been observed to kill neighboring members, adult members, whether it’s males or females. They have these very violent intergroup interactions.
And in captivity where I tend to work putting strange chimpanzees together is incredibly, incredibly stressful on the chimpanzees and the people who are trying to manage the situation because they’re so xenophobic – they’re so scared and afraid and aggressive towards strangers. And so then to tell you that one of our two closest relatives is not only not xenophobic, they are what is known as xenophilic. They’re attracted to strangers, they want to be near strangers, and they actually want to be friendly and have affiliative relationships. It’s shocking that these nearly genetically indistinguishable species have such a different response to strangers. Given our track record with intergroup hostility, how do we explain this?
OK, there’s like 12 why questions in that. Let’s see if we can unpack that just a little bit. We were talking earlier – you and Vanessa wrote this piece that was in Scientific America last August that was sort of an abbreviated version of what’s in the book. And you start with, ‘We are the only human beings on Earth right at the moment, but not so long ago we had a lot of company’. Let’s start there. Tell me that story, and then as we go, maybe we can unpack that connection to bonobos.
No, that’s great because from a scientific perspective, that’s kind of the ultimate goal. You’re trying to understand these wonderfully complicated animals for just understanding them – their own intrinsic value of understanding how they operate. But what’s so amazing about all the research with great apes is it teaches us so much about ourselves. And so going back to that original story of the big surprising finding in the last 10 – 15 years in the study of human evolution, is that we were not alone on this planet until very, very recently. It’s probably 25 to 50,000 years ago, somewhere in that ballpark, that we became the lone human species. Before that there were one to five other human species that we shared the planet with. They all had language or linguistic capabilities that we probably would recognize.
They all had culture, they all had cultural traditions and created artifacts and technology, and they all had big brains. Many of those species had brains the same size as our own. Those are usually the explanations we would use to say this is what makes humans different from other animals. We have big brains, we have linguistic abilities, we have culture. And that’s why we are so successful. Well, when you come to the stunning realization that literally four or five other species that meet those criteria went extinct, what you realize is that culture, language, big brains predict extinction. It doesn’t predict success. So then you sit there scratching your head, then why are we still here? And what was it about us that allowed us to survive and be so successful?
But that almost seems to like spit in the face of everything we’ve been told and taught. I mean if there’s five of us living around and we all have language, we all have culture, and we all have, all of those things that we think of as being quote, civilized, evolved creatures, where the hell are those other four?
Right, right. What happened to them? Because I thought all you needed was a big brain, culture, and some kinda language skill, and you can dominate the planet. And the answer apparently not, because the majority of species that had those capabilities are now gone and they’ve long been extinct. So 25, 50,000 years ago, they were gone. So how did we make it? So this is where work with bonobos has been really enlightening and helpful because when you take a step back and you ask a question, when you look at life and you say, what is the strategy that leads to major evolutionary advances? What takes a class of organisms or a specific organism from sort of doing OK, but we don’t know if you’re gonna be around anymore, to just absolutely taking off and sort of dominating at the game of life?
Well most people, their first thing when I say ‘dominating the game of life’, they’re gonna go to survival of fittest. Oh, of course, it’s survival of the fittest. It’s the biggest, the strongest, the meanest, whether it’s a group of individuals or a type of organism that can just dominate others and win. So it’s a little bit surprising what I’m gonna say next, which is that actually when you take a step back and you look at life and you say, where did those big jumps happen? It is always the case that those big jumps happen when there’s an increase in friendliness that leads to a new form of cooperation. And I can walk you through some great examples. And that’s where the title of our book and our article came from, Survival of the Friendliest, because it’s really friendliness.
That’s the winning strategy, and you win big in life with friendliness. So examples would be anything from the relationship between flowering plants, which actually are a newer type of plant, where they make a deal. They say, look, we’re gonna give you something. We’re gonna be friendly to you. We’re gonna offer you some energy in exchange that you take this really light package and share it with others of my kind. And not only do you have them spread everywhere and start dominating from this friendliness, you have this new formal cooperation that allows for all sorts of diversity that didn’t exist before.
Which really makes me think of Michael Paul and his book Botany of Desire. I mean, that’s exactly that concept ‘if I’m a tasty apple, you’ll take me everywhere and spread me…’
Everywhere. Exactly. So it’s a type of friendliness. Another type of friendliness – one of my other favorite examples – is thinking about the only terrestrial vertebrate that lives year round and Antarctica. It is the penguin. And how do they do it? Well, they have evolved a new type of friendliness, which is basically hugging and cuddling all winter. And everybody’s familiar probably in your audience with birds on the telephone wire, who space themselves and don’t wanna sit too close, there’s always a distance. And getting on the subway or any kind of public transit, you always leave that seat open. That’s not what penguins do. They smash into each other, they hug and huddle, and they love to be close, even though they’re perfect strangers with each other. And that keeps them warm and allows them to survive where no other species can. So a type of friendliness evolves that allows them to dominate in a way that no other animal can in that very hostile environment.
Another final example would be the cleaner rays. So these are the fish that clean the mouths of other fish. So they should be afraid of the predators that they’re cleaning the mouths of. They should swim away from them, but instead they swim towards them. And not only do they swim towards them in a friendly manner, they go into their mouths. How stupid can you be? But it ends up that this friendliness is rewarded with the predators not eating them, and they get to feed on all the parasites that are in the mouth of the predator. So this new type of friendliness evolves that allows for a new type of cooperation, and this fish has flourished as a result. And obviously, the predator that they cleaned the mouth of flourished as well. So this really is an incredibly successful strategy. And bonobos are a product of this same force.
So as somebody who’s passionate about apes spent a lot of time in places like the Congo filming chimps and gorillas and bonobos, the question is why not chimps? Why bonobos? There’s some physical things we know about them. I mean, the Congo River has separated them to the South and they’re isolated and so forth. I don’t know, you could tell me if that’s had any influence on them over time. I mean, why aren’t there isolated groups of chimps that have become friendlier?
Well I don’t wanna steal Richard’s thunder. He would love to talk to you about his new idea which is that, it is true – yes, bonobos became isolated south of the Congo River, chimpanzees only live north of the Congo River. When you have a physical separation like that, that doesn’t allow for reproduction to continue, then you have the chance for speciation, or different species to evolve. But that’s not relevant to your question about, why did the bonobos become friendly and the chimpanzees didn’t become friendlier? Richard’s answer would actually be they did, they just became friendlier. They became friendlier in West Africa. It’s the East African and the central chimpanzees that are particularly sort of non-friendly to strangers and have the most extreme version of despotism, whereas West African chimpanzees are a little bit more towards the bonobo in terms of their behavioral profile.
So this is a new argument. I’m not saying that this is embraced by all, but this is a new thing that Richard has made the case for. So in terms of bonobos, the thinking is that any time friendliness begins to be favored in evolution there’s sort of a cost benefit ratio that flips. And it seems really counterintuitive because everybody thinks, ‘oh, wouldn’t it always be better to be bigger and aggressive?’ Well, maybe it depends on the economics of it.
I think part of what gets lost is the fact that it’s costly to be on top. You need a really good immune system to deal with any injuries you’re gonna have. So you have to spend a lot more of your energy staying healthy. You’re also at much greater risk of being injured, maybe even mortally, which means that you’re not gonna be able to reproduce if you’re dead. And so everybody’s gunning for you. There’s a lot of energy to police and try to get everybody under control, et cetera. So there’s a lot of cost. So if the benefit of being alpha and despotic isn’t paying off, such that you can offset all those costs, well, all of a sudden – boom – friendliness becomes much more beneficial. Evolutionarily, it’s gonna be the path or the strategy that’s gonna be favored. Because if the cost of being the big, bad alpha is so costly that you can’t reproduce faster than an individual who’s super friendly, you’re outta luck.
And so there’s a lot of context ecologically where that happens. And so that’s what we think happened in the case of bonobos – and Richard’s making that argument for West African chimpanzees too. So in the case of Bonobos, the thinking is that something, ecologically, made it far more beneficial to be – for males in particular – to be friendlier towards strangers, towards females, towards the infants of females. And basically the cost of being aggressive and trying to dominate no longer could be overcome. So the friendliest males were the ones that won out. And so then the question becomes, Okay, well, yeah, but what was the ecological factor that shifted that payoff scheme? Well we have ideas. And I can tell you some of the ideas and some of the tests, but I just wanna reassure everybody that this has happened many, many times in evolution – that friendliness becomes beneficial.
Another example is your dog, your pet dog. We know that dogs evolve through a process of friendliness, as wolves who are friendlier towards humans won the day. So there’s many, many examples where the ecology shifts and friendliness pays off big. Do we know exactly for sure in the case of bonobos? No, but it’s not like this is some isolated random case. So one of the ideas for what favored friendliness is that basically there was more food available that was more predictable. And that may be because bonobos evolved without competing with gorillas. It also may be that south of the Congo River was just more predictable in what it was producing a million to two million years ago when this species started to diverge. We’ve tested this, actually, believe it or not, but in a counterintuitive way.
So my own research group, we said, well, wait a second. If the ecology a million to two million years ago was more predictable for bonobos and less predictable for chimpanzees, then that suggests that how they make economic decisions about feeding should be different between the two species. Bonobos should be really risk averse. Chimpanzees should be really risk prone, and that should, that the signature of their feeding ecology from a million to 2 million years ago should be reflected in their feeding preferences today, because the individuals who had risk aversion in bonobos would’ve been more likely to survive, and the ones that were risk prone in chimpanzee land would’ve been more likely to survive. And the idea is, when you’re risk averse, if you’re surrounded by food that’s predictable, why would you take risks? Just eat the food.
Chimpanzees where it’s more unpredictable, you’re gonna have to take risks because some days if you don’t take the risk, you’re not gonna make it. So that’s exactly what we found. We played some games, some economic games that played with people, really, and we were able to show that bonobos are risk averse in a way that chimpanzees are not, and that chimpanzees are much more risk prone when making decisions about what they’re gonna eat. And so this seems to be the psychological signature of the south of the Congo River being more predictable, even though we can’t go in a time machine and measure the plants and the food availability. It seems to be that there’s a psychological signature that that ecology really was different.
Is there any tie to that and what we’re seeing in West Africa? And that’s precipitating Richard’s thinking about why? I mean, I think it’s really important to point out to folks listening that evolution isn’t static. We tend to think of it in a very homo centric way and look at it go, Oh, well, all this stuff evolved to now, and it kind of has come to a halt. But I think what was fascinating about just thinking about all the work that you’ve been doing, listening to some of the other Ted Talks and other things that you, you’ve done is this idea that there were four or five of us around 80, a hundred thousand years ago, the fact that there has been this movement, and there’s parts of that that I would love to chat about it in. You mentioned dogs and that whole idea of floppy airness, you know, curly tales, the sort of infantile facial structures. Maybe the best classic example of that is in cartoons. It’s the evolution of Mickey Mouse to the very baby-like Mickey Mouse that we have now. Over the years, there’s this constant progression towards being more and more infantile.
Just like I can’t stop this from falling because of gravity. Evolution is working right now, and you can’t stop it. You know, my favorite example of this is just to talk about self domestication, currently, right now. And that is what I mean by self domestication is that organisms like coyotes, like deer, other wild animals that are increasingly approaching and being attracted to human settlements. In fact, the densest human settlements are the most attractive environments for these organisms now because they’re not being killed by people. There’s tons of food. And so where there used to be fear, it’s being replaced with an attraction. And so that evolution is happening right now. And the individuals that are attracted and losing their fear, there’s likely selection that’s gonna lead to changes not just to that behavior, but also to other parts of their body like we see in other domesticated animals.
So the prediction is that we’re gonna see curly tailed coyotes and they might have some white spots on ’em in a hundred years. So it is not the case at all that evolution stops. And it is absolutely the case that our species somehow outcompeted species relatively recently. And bonobos sort of give us a hint because we talked about how something happened in that cost benefit relationship where friendliness starts to pay. We have the psychological signature that bonobos prefer things that are more predictable when they make decisions about food. They don’t like risk, they avoid it. Whereas chimpanzees love risk. If you run a casino, you’d be happy if a whole bunch of chimps ran in because they are definitely gonna go for it. You know, they’re gonna be on the roulette table the whole night.
So the final cherry on top is that two field sites where people have measured the baby’s parentage in these wild bonobos have been able to demonstrate that the most successful male bonobo has had more offspring than the most successful male chimpanzees. So friendly bonobo males that have never been observed to kill, that don’t have any intergroup aggression, never attack females in a way that would lead to serious injury, they actually have more babies than the most successful alpha dominant despotic killer chimpanzees. So it really is the case that friendliness wins. It pays off in reproduction. And bonobos are case in point, and it’s probably a big part of our own species’ success as we outcompeted all those other humans.
That’s really interesting. And it brings me to a question I wanted to ask you that you had in survival of the friendliest, and that was talking about the kids of bonobos.
Yeah, so one of the most striking things that happens when you’re with bonobos in captivity, interacting with them in a way that you can’t see through just observation – when you see wild bonobos, and you can’t miss it when you interact with them, is that if for some reason you do something that scares a baby bonobo by accident, you know, a baby bonobo screams and they’re scared. Well, if that happened with chimpanzees, and that’s happened to me many times, accidentally, you’re closing a door, it makes a strange noise, the chimpanzee baby screams, well, the mom is gonna come as you’d expect and grab the baby and comfort the baby. That is not what happens with bonobos. You close the door, it makes a little funny noise, the baby screams, everybody comes, the whole group arrives because nobody messes with a baby bonobo.
Even if it’s not my baby, I’m coming. And so that is totally different. And one of the things we’ve been able to demonstrate in a sort of a preliminary way is that – and to counter something you said a little bit – what we have argued is actually bonobos are not female dominated. They are baby dominant. And what we mean by that is nobody had ever actually measured the dominant status of baby bonobos, because why would you? Because in all of their studies, when you study hierarchy, babies don’t have rank. I mean, they’re just on their mom, they don’t do anything. But when we measured the rank of the babies, it ends up that baby bonobos were some of the highest ranking members of the group.
And remember, this is a species where there’s no infanticide. It’s one of the only primate species where no infanticide has ever been observed. And the reason is because if a baby’s in trouble, it’s not just mom that’s coming, it’s everybody. So if you are a big male who is, you know, twice as big as any female, or not twice as big, but 20% as big as any female, and you scare that baby, you better run. You better run as fast as you can. So they’re baby dominant. And the reason that that’s an important distinction, there’s been a lot of debate in the literature because in a biological sense, I think in a popular sense, it’s okay to talk about females being dominant in bonobos because there’s no alpha males.
So doesn’t that mean the females are dominant? Technically no, because hyenas are female dominant. And in those species, every female is dominant over every male in those species. And it ends up that those females are masculinized, they become more male, like even their genitalia is changed, it’s altered and they become larger and basically no male is able to take on a female in a female dominated species.
That is not the case in bonobos. Bonobos use coalition power. Female bonobos are not larger than male bonobos, so they don’t meet a lot of the criteria of female dominance. And it’s very difficult when you do careful observation to point out one female that is the one dominant female. It can be done, it can be done, but the difference between the alpha female who might be called alpha and the next female is marginal. Whereas in other primate species, the difference would be really large and it’d be really clear who’s alpha. So that’s why we’ve made the argument for fun and also based on some data that bonobos actually have a completely unique system of being baby dominant.
Wow. Now I had not heard that at all. So that’s really interesting to hear. I mean, I guess from a media standpoint, it is much more exciting to just talk about females having control of this thing and female to female sex. All of that sort of dominates the popular media.
Well, yeah, it’s fun. It’s fun for you to say that because when I went to Congo with Anderson Cooper, we did a 60 minute piece on Lola ya Bonobo to look at the work there with the orphan bonobos and talk about their conservation status and then our research. He obviously wanted to talk about what everybody knows about – their socio sexual behavior or their sexual behavior. And I said, Anderson, look, I know that that’s what your audience is interested in and what you wanna talk about, because you know that eyeballs will be glued to the screen. But I think that if, and I said this to myself, I think if the bonobos knew that that’s what our species was interested in, they would think we were super immature given that they’re the only apes species that doesn’t murder.
Like how can that be the thing we are always focused on when they never kill each other? So, so we’ve really been focused on how is it that their psychology allows them to escape the murderous cycle we see in chimpanzees, we see in humans. And of course, their socio sexual behavior is a part of that. But I think it’s a byproduct of the selection for friendliness. What I’m trying to say is it’s part of the story. It’s an interesting part of the story, but it’s not the story. I think it’s what you originally alluded to, that baby bonobos, for instance, they’re already having a lot of socio sexual behavior that you only observe in chimpanzees during adolescence for the first time.
So literally, baby bonobos are born ready to rub their genitals against someone else’s genitals if there’s a social stressor in the environment. And we think that that releases oxytocin. And oxytocin is a neural hormone that is an antagonist to cortisol or corticosteroids that are stressors. And so you get really stressed about a social situation. You rub genitals, it releases oxytocin, it reduces that stress thanks to the friend that you just, you know, helped reduce their stress too. You bond, no aggression. And so one of the other important things is a lot of people, when you talk about – I like to joke that bonobos are trysexual, they’ll try anything sexual. I’ve seen things I didn’t know were possible. Anything with humans, you name it, I’ve probably seen it with bonobos. And then I’ve seen a lot of things I hadn’t seen with humans.
So we think with that kind of portfolio, it’s all about sex. They’re rubbing genitals. Most of what they’re doing that’s sort of eye-popping is they’re rubbing genitals. It’s not that they’re having intercourse. It’s like a self-soothing behavior. The reason I feel confident about that is I’ve seen bonobos in captivity I’ve worked with when they get stressed out cause they’re not doing well on a game that we’re playing, and they get upset ‘cause they’re not doing well – they have to go self soothe. They will basically have to rub themselves on something. It really is when they get stressed, they need to have this releaser.
If we could pivot back for just a second to this whole issue of aggression. So why, or maybe you would argue they are, but why haven’t humans become across the board friendlier? If that’s a success. If we see it in bonobos, and I mean certainly you, I suppose you could argue that in Western cultures and developed nations, we generally have access to all the food we want. We have access to many of the other things that we need. So the stress should be off to some degree. I mean, that might be a different case if you’re in a refugee camp in Eastern Congo. Do we see this evolution happening in humans or there are some barriers there that we either run into or we haven’t recognized?
So let me do a u-shaped answer. I’m gonna tell you the today answer and then go back in time, that I think will take us back to today. Maybe it’s a circle. I dunno. So you asked me about today, you know, given Western society, we seem to be relative to history and prehistory pretty well off in terms of resources. If the argument is that cost benefit favors friendliness, why not in our society’s friendly look out, there’s so much that we could be upset about, say, relative to other societies. And you brought up Eastern Congo. I think the answer is yes. I think it’s just the time scale. I think liberal democracies are incredibly friendly and liberal democracies are designed really as the only form of government that has allowed for large scale societies to maintain hierarchy and egalitarian principles at the same time.
And no other social organization does that, history is replete and today we can see examples, unfortunately of government organization where it’s sort of zero, some party or group or faction takes over another faction. Maybe it’s, they resist, they rebel. We’re gonna really do things differently and fast forward 50 years and you have despotism like you had when the revolution started. So liberal democracies are really the only form of government where you have competing groups that have a way to transition between power potentially peacefully, and also where the party that’s out of power still has a voice and still has power. So while you may have less power, you never have no power. And so I would say that it’s a return to pre-agricultural times where humans lived purely as egalitarian and much more non-hierarchically.
But it also allows for large scale societies where there is some type of hierarchy that’s almost necessary for the functioning of groups of humans that are so large. So I would say yes, I would say we are friendlier. If there were other forms of government could we do better? Absolutely. So, alright, but you know, a lot came up with that answer about hunter gatherers being egalitarian and being cooperative, and something must have happened during agriculture and industrialization as our groups got bigger that then led to hierarchy. What’s that all about and what does that have to do with the extinct humans? So the argument is that friendliness in humans and our own species of humans, somehow that cost benefit payoff matrix changed where unlike other species, that it continued that sort of aggression and xenophobia paid really high dividends.
So friendliness sort of wasn’t favored. The argument is at some point in the evolution of our species of human, that payoff started to change and friendliness was favored in a way that it wasn’t favored in the other species. And Richard and I have thought a lot about this. Richard was of course the one who put this idea in the minds of all these students, myself included, and has written a brilliant book called The Goodness Paradox. And where he explains his answer to this, How do you explain the paradox of humans being the friendliest and the cruelest species on the planet? What I’m gonna tell you now is my version of that, which borrows partly from his, but has some added whistles and bells. So in the case of human evolution, the idea is there was a new type of friendliness that allowed for new forms of cooperation, like we have talked about in all the other species including dogs and bonobos.
And in this case of our species. What I argue is that it was an attraction to a certain type of stranger that changed everything for humans of our species. And that type of stranger is a stranger that we recognize as sharing a social identity with our own group. That individuals who we’ve never met before or we haven’t formed a friendship with, we are attracted to them. We actually like strangers. We are xenophilic in the way that bonobos are xenophilic. As long as we recognize something about the stranger as being like our own group identity. Maybe they have the same language, maybe they wear the same clothes, maybe they eat the same food, maybe they have the same type of tattoo, maybe they wear their hair the same way. Something that we say, Oh, I don’t know you, but you’re from my group.
We like apes, we’re from the same group. We didn’t know each other before today. And we instantly can cooperate, communicate, and get along and be friends. This is completely unique to humans what we’re doing right here because bonobos, as xenophilic as they are, their attraction to strangers is not based on social identity. It’s based on familiarity only. Am I familiar or unfamiliar to that other individual? If I’m unfamiliar, I’m attracted to you, but it has nothing to do with some shared agreed group identity that makes me attracted to you. So when group identity appears on the field of evolution and the life history or the evolutionary history of our lineage, it changes everything because it means that instead of interacting with a few dozen or a hundred individuals in our lifetime, now we can interact with thousands of individuals.
The neighbors that we can view as like us, or even distant neighbors that are like us, that have some kind of shared social identity, we see as like ourselves. We can share information, we can share innovation, we can share technologies, all sorts of things. And you have thousands of minds being bonded together and all of a sudden technology explodes in a way that it does not for other species. So we can advance, innovate, and solve all sorts of problems that other species can’t because we’re attracted to strangers who share our social identity.
Is there a point where either the group gets too big or someone is too strange and you’re for Duke University and the Blue Devils, I mean the, the Cameron Crazies. I mean, here’s this group of people who share this passion for basketball within that stadium and they’ll do anything. And even though they’ve come from all these different places on the planet,literally in some cases, ‘cause you look across that audience at any Duke basketball game and you see faces of every description under the sun, Is there a group size that it becomes unmanageable to that, there’s too many strangers? So you’re too strange.
Yeah. How do you solve the paradox? I mean, so you’ve got these folks, as you say in Cameron, it’s a great example where complete strangers from all over the world didn’t grow up together and they share a social identity. They’re Cameron crazies. They smash themselves together like penguins in the Antarctic screaming like crazy and they are friends forever and, you know, start businesses, have families together or whatever. It’s completely a unique feature of human psychology that strangers like that can feel like family based on a social identity, not on kinship, actual kinship. And so the thinking is that that amazing new type of friendliness points directly to the mechanism that leads to the worst of human nature and the origin of our terrible cruelty. And that is that we feel like family together with strangers who share our social identity.
And just like any other organism, I like to use a bear as a metaphor here where you’ve got a mama bear who loves their infants and their baby cubs, and they’ll do anything for them. And it’s so wonderful to see them nurturing and caring, just like it’s wonderful to see those, any group of kids going crazy over their basketball team and, and see their wonderful friendships, that same care and concern and love for what feels like family leads you to protect them if they feel threatened. And so the same mechanism that leads a mama bear to risk her life or do horrendous harm to anything that might threaten her offspring is the same thing that happens as we start to feel about our social identity and those that share it with us as if it’s family being threatened when there’s something that might potentially harm our social identity, those who share it, and those that we care about love as if they were our kin.
And so any social identity that is seen to threaten our own then becomes the problem. And then what’s a second feature of this is that social identity is absolutely plastic. So obviously in the United States, in the context of the United States, we can’t help but be worried about race. And it dominates so much of what we’re thinking about and what we hope and aspire to improve and do better with. But if you back up and you look at just humans, it can be anything. It’s not race. Race is socially constructed just like any other social construction.
We tell the story in our book, within Central Africa. The pygmies who are hunter gatherers living in the forest.They have been horrendously discriminated against. They are viewed as a different race. So anything can be socially constructed. If it’s in the Australian context, it would be aboriginals and western Australians who colonized Australia. In Asia you could talk about all sorts of different genocides against different people. So it’s not just that race is the only thing,it just happens to be one of the worst, especially in the US context. So any social identity socially constructed is something that humans can use as this social identity. And so the same thing that allows for crazy amounts of friendliness, cooperation, innovation, can, when we feel threatened, lead to the most horrific cruelty. So not only does it explain survival, the friendliest as a secret to our success, but it also explains the paradox of why we have this horrible capability to do terrible things to other human beings.
So when you walk into Cameron and you see all those people together, that must give you hope about us as a species. The fact that we can be together and there are mechanisms which I guess step beyond all those, those pre-constructed social- race, and the way you look, and the clothes you wear.
Well, you know, it’s funny I’ve never really talked about that with anybody, but I grew up a die-hard Georgia Tech fan. And if you grew up as a long suffering Georgia Tech fan, you don’t like Duke very much. Especially Duke basketball. And so when I came to Duke, it was very hard for me to be excited about Duke. So what happens is you form friendships, you become invested in the community. So these strangers that have a different social identity to your own, you start to then absorb and care about that social identity as if it was your own. So now, yes, I love the Cameron Crazies and Duke in a way that would not have been possible because of friendships. And that’s what gives me hope is there’s great science showing that cross group friendships across different social identities really can form bridges and prevent the worst of what humans are capable of and that social identities are socially constructed and that there are ways to shift them around. As long as we’re aware that this feature of human psychology is not gonna go away.
Brian, thanks so much for taking the time to be with us today on Talking Apes. I really appreciate it. Maybe you can just quickly, for those who want to know more about bonobos and what’s going on at Lola, where can they find that? You said there was a new website?
Bonobos.org. If you go to bonobos.org, you can find everything out about Lola. You can find the Twitter handle. You can follow Lola Ya Bonobo on Facebook too. There are amazing videos and stories and what an incredible organization. And it’s hard not to fall in love with bonobos. I try every day to be a better bonobo male. So I hope that inspires others too.
And on that note, I guess we’ll say goodbye and thank you again so very much for being on Talking Apes.
I wanna thank Dr. Brian Hare once again for sharing this amazing hour with us. You’ve been listening to Talking Apes, where each episode we explore the world of apes with experts from research to outreach with passionate primate people and with conservationists from around the world. Our guests are at the forefront of what’s happening with our wild cousins. You can find previous episodes of Talking Apes on our website or wherever you get your podcasts.
I’d like to thank you for your support. Give Apes a voice, help share their voice by making a tax deductible donation at globio.org. Until next time, I’m Gerry Ellis and you’ve been listening to Talking Apes.