Bonobos Offer Banana Bribes for Friendship


In 1719, Daniel Defoe wrote in Robinson Crusoe, ”He declar’d he had reserv’d nothing from the Men, and went Share and Share alike with them in every Bit they eat.” Defoe’s famous sharing phrase has persisted throughout the years, passing from parent to child as a lesson on the virtues of sharing with family, peers and even strangers. 

But in the context of evolution and survival of the fittest, sharing makes no sense. Until now, scientists assumed that humans alone subscribed to this behavior, especially when it comes to sharing with strangers, and wrote the trait off as a quirk stemming from our unique cognitive and social development. 

Sure, primatologists know that great apes help and voluntarily share food with other group mates (acts that indirectly benefits themselves). But strangers? Such a behavior is unheard of amidst species that often compete aggressively with other groups and even murder foreign individuals.

Researchers from Duke University decided to challenge the great ape’s bad sharing rep, seeking to discover whether or not our furry relatives may also have a propensity for partitioning goods with animals they do not know. The scientists chose bonobos–a type of great ape sometimes referred to as a pygmy chimpanzee–for their study. Compared to chimpanzees, bonobos possess a relatively high tolerance for strangers, so they seemed like a logical candidate for investigations into the nature of sharing.

Written By: Rachel Nuwer
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  1. Never underestimate the “Humanity ” of our cousins and our shared need commune with our fellows.

    Anyone want to go for a coffee? I’ll buy…

  2. I can definitely see the benefit to the individual of sharing resources. It not only ‘buys’ friendship and perhaps future remuneration, but also raises one’s status in the group. An individual who ‘gives’ will seem to be rich in assets and worth cultivating. This adds to their appeal as mates, I should think.
    There might also be a secondary experiment, so test just how far the generosity goes, that is, whether hungry monkeys will also share. And if so, how hungry do they have to be to stop sharing?

  3. I’m not qualified to comment on the tenuousness or otherwise of the connection between humans and any particular primate species, but I find these experiments fascinating in themselves.

  4. In reply to #1 by Brian The Coyote:

    Never underestimate the “Humanity ” of our cousins and our shared need commune with our fellows.

    Anyone want to go for a coffee? I’ll buy…

    Only coffee? If you want to win my loyalty (or catch my eye) you’ll have to at least make it lunch.

  5. If chimps are cousins Bonobos are more like half-siblings, or at least the filial analogy becomes insufficient to describe the wonderful similarities between us.

  6. But if this changes the definition of sharing as seen by the RCC, they’ll scream persecution if zoology wants to teach that it’s not only humans who share!

  7. In reply to #7 by bluebird:

    What Would Roy Comfort Do?

    Correction – Ray Comfort

    I say this as half joke, half serious;

    he and Kirkoduck Cameron continue to travel the world preaching nonsense.

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