Bonobos may be more generous than us. Sure, sharing your bag of chips with a family member isn’t a big deal but would you offer your food to a complete stranger? Probably not. Likewise, if some random person offered you some food, you might not be so eager to take. Understandably, most of us have been familiarised with something called ‘stranger danger!’ from a young age. Strangers do not bother bonobos, in fact, they try to become acquainted with other unknown bonobos shown in a series of experiments conducted by Tan & Hare (2013).
First you may be wondering what a bonobo is, it is a species of great ape that shares 98% of their DNA with us. They are less well known than other apes and are on the brink of extinction. They are a gentle species and can be found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The journal tells us that bonobos will happily share its food with strangers even when they had the option of monopolising the food. What was fascinating was when a bonobo is given the choice to keep the food to itself, or choose to share with either a stranger or a group member, the bonobo had a preference for sharing its food with a stranger. Even more interesting is how the stranger bonobo would then release the other group member bonobo which would further reduce the amount of food each bonobo got. It would then be expected that the stranger bonobo would be at a disadvantage as the two bonobos from the same group might gang up on it, but the opposite is true. The two group members would happily share with a stranger and show no aggression towards the unknown bonobo. Perhaps they enjoy the interacting with strangers?
Another experiment in the same journal showed that bonobos will help a stranger acquire food even if there is no way of social interaction between the two. However, in a final experiment, they manage to show that if physical interaction was limited then the bonobos are unlikely to share its food with group members or strangers.
So Tan & Hare were able to demonstrate that bonobos will share its food if given the opportunity to meet and physically interact with stranger bonobos, and that they enjoy this interaction over interaction with group members. It was also shown that they are able to be selfless by aiding another bonobo acquire out of reach food with no immediate benefit to themselves and that they were able to weigh up the costs of sharing food and the amount of interaction was available.
This species of ape is so similar to us yet we do not actively seek stranger contact, preferring our own social circles. In a way, they might even be more selfless than us. I mean, how often do you go around helping out complete strangers with no immediate benefit for yourself? Bonobos are a peaceful species where stranger interaction is safe. Humans, less so.
Sources: Tan J, Hare B (2013) Bonobos Share with Strangers. PLoS ONE 8(1): e51922. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0051922