Are humans more like chimps or bonobos? The correct answer is changing.

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Humans may not be as chimp-like as you think. There could be a much more peaceable ape relative who is closer to us. I speak, of course, of the matriarchal, bisexual, polyamorous bonobo.

Conventional evolutionary wisdom has human beings branching off from a common ancestor shared between humans, chimpanzees and bonobos about 6.5 million years ago. Chimps and bonobos split from their common ancestor about 1.5 million years ago. Which makes modern humans about equally related to both species. But that doesn't seem to be the popular narrative.

Why? Well, let's not pussyfoot around. Chimpanzees are horrible animals. They are. They're dominated by violent males. They engage in bloody boundary disputes during which patrols of several large males will gang up and kill stray male members of an opposing tribe. They'll kill and eat infant chimpanzees they find, and grab any females. They fight among each other constantly and violently.


Sound familiar?

Bonobos, meanwhile, are cooperative, relatively non-violent, and respond to unfamiliar problems, social stress, or conflicts by initiating wild bonobo sex parties. In theory, they're as like us as chimps are, but let's put it this way - there have been several brawls that have broken out on the floor of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, but no orgies.

However, a study published in a recent issue of PLOS Genetics indicates that chimps and bonobos are equally related to the common ancestor they share with humans. While chimps adapted to varied environments, bonobos stayed put in forests and remained in the same environment where they evolved. Their genetic codes have undergone fewer changes than those of chimps. This means that bonobos could be more closely related to humans than chimpanzees are - which might change the current cultural narrative a bit. Perhaps our heritage is not inventive and vicious violence, but cooperative groups working to ensure the survival of all.

Of course, the opposite case could be made. Humans and chimps could have evolved and changed by breeding an ever-greater capacity for violence while the bonobos were stuck in a rut in a forest having sex with each other.


Still, this new possibility that we share more with bonobos does indicate that our earliest ancestor might not have distinguished itself through struggles for dominance but through the ability to cooperate and nonviolently overcome obstacles. 'Survival of the fittest' could come to mean survival of those with the greatest the ability to resolve disputes to the mutual benefit of all. If nothing else, it could be a nice turn for social Darwinism to take.

Via Times Higher Education.