Survival of the Friendliest

Evolutionary anthropologist Dr. Brian Hare and Primatologist Dr. Vanessa Woods have spent years studying how animals think. Lately, they have explored why some primates form social groups around dominance and aggression while others intuitively form communities based on cooperation and mutuality. To do this, they studied Chimpanzees and Bonobo monkeys. These two species are nearly identical in genetics and lineage. In fact, humans share 99% of our DNA with them. They are more like us (or we are like them) than gorillas. But these two species have radically different social instincts.

Their research has revealed that Chimpanzees living north of the Congo River in Africa have organized their social structures based on hierarchy and physical strength. The alpha male rules the tribe. If he’s entering a tribe for the first time, he kills all the babies to establish his dominance. Once in control, he rallies the other males to patrol their borders to protect their land and resources. If they discover vulnerable chimpanzees close to their perimeter, they will kill them without hesitation.

South of the Congo river is another tribe of monkeys called Bonobos. The Bonobo monkeys have built a tribal society led by the females of the tribe. They rarely fight. In fact, they refuse to mate with males who show aggression. They protect their young. They share with each other – food, affection, power. Compared to the chimpanzees to the north, they live a life of peace and leisure. 

What makes them different? 

Dr. Hare explains that the Bonobos living south of the Congo River live in a resource-rich environment. They don’t have to fight for food or worry about protecting scarce fertile land. For thousands of years, they have lived in a place of abundance, which has nurtured and rewarded an instinct for sharing, concern for each other, and collaboration.

The chimpanzees and gorillas who live on the north side of the Congo river live in a less abundant environment. They must protect the food sources they discover from other tribes or animals also seeking sustenance. Theirs is a fight for survival, and it doesn’t pay to share with others. 

Scientists believe that these two tribes split about 6 million years ago as the Congo River formed and drove them apart. Today we can see the power of evolutionary experience to shape our base instincts.

These two examples strike me as we reflect on the tensions of our current culture and the kind of future we might create together. So far, ours has been a story more closely aligned with the experience of the Chimpanzees. We fight for resources, protect our lands and borders, and sustain hierarchies primarily by brute force. It’s delivered results. Still, I wonder if it’s the instinct we need going forward. 

The Bonobos teach us that there is another way to live. We have in equal measure within our DNA the possibility of building a more compassionate culture. When fairly distributed, we have the resources and technology to provide abundant life for every living creature on this planet. We live in a resource-full world, though we tell ourselves the false story of scarcity.

Perhaps this is the primary evolutionary question before us, and the one spirituality is best positioned to answer. In the Christian tradition, the Apostle Paul teaches in Ephesians 4:31-32, “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” 

I hear that as “Be like the Bonobos.”

We are in this together,

Rev. Cameron Trimble
Author of Searching for the Sacred: Meditations on Faith, Hope and Love

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