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Using Bonobos to Bash Human Exceptionalism

A bonobo at the San Diego Zoo, by Mike Richey / CC BY-SA (

The other day I heard an interview on NPR’s “All Things Considered” about bonobos and their capacity for “culture.” A couple of reporters were talking about a journal article for eLife, “Social Learning: Does culture shape hunting behavior in bonobos?” 

Chicken or Beef?

It turns out that two groups of African bonobos occupying overlapping territories hunt different kinds of animals, one focusing on a kind of antelope, the other a flying squirrel. The participants in the discussion were hosts Ailsa Chang and Sacha Pfeifer, talking with primatologist Liran Samuni at Harvard:

CHANG: So for more than four years, the researchers tracked two bonobo groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo, documenting the apes’ social interactions and what they hunted. And they found a striking dietary difference.

SAMUNI: So we had one group which specialized on the hunting of a small antelope called duiker, while the other bonobo group specialized on the hunting of anomalure, which is a gliding rodent.

PFEIFFER: Samuni says think about it in the context of humans. You might have two cultures living near or among each other, but one prefers chicken; the other prefers beef.

On the program, another primatologist pointed out that at the San Diego Zoo, the bonobos have a habit of switching back and forth between mutual grooming and clapping their hands or feet. Hunting different animals, alternating grooming with clapping — this is “culture.” At the end, Ailsa Chang put a little chuckle in her voice and admonished listeners, “And it’s also another reminder that we humans aren’t quite as unique as we think we are.” It was the chuckle that got me. You can listen to it here.

Culture Piled High

When I heard this, I was driving to the office on a multilane freeway with high-rises, a range of businesses, art museums, shopping malls, hospital buildings, restaurants, and other evidence of human culture piled up high on either side of me. I feel secure in stating that at the same time, no bonobos were driving to their office on a freeway with the monuments of bonobo civilization displayed on either side of them. Despite undoubted parallels in our physiology, there is no comparison between bonobo “culture” and human achievements. None whatsoever. Is this not perfectly obvious?

Of course not all human culture is fine and noble, but it’s still unique. At that moment, I was also driving under skies laden with poisonous wildfire smoke. Elsewhere on the radio, people were debating the cause of fires consuming the West Coast, where I live. Is it human-driven climate change, poorly conceived forest maintenance policies, or some of both? Whatever your view, the devastating fires and the evil yellow smoke follow from choices made by people. Unlike humans, bonobos don’t profoundly change the environment with unwise choices. They don’t conceive policies, or have debates about them. These are all exclusively human phenomena, for better or worse.

The folks on NPR seemed unaware that bonobos never have had and never will have history, art, music, literature, sports, cooking, or technology. This morning my eyes fell on a book my wife is reading, Bobos in Paradise, by New York Times columnist David Brooks. There is no Pan paniscus Brooks, the author of Bonobos in Paradise, and there never will be.

Man the Fire-Maker

Bonobos will never be able to use fire and engage in metallurgy, a capacity of the profoundest significance and one that nature seems designed to make possible for us. As biologist Michael Denton has shown in his recent series here on man as the fire-maker, manipulating fire is the key to almost all human cultural achievement. I could go on. All this elicits a chuckle from Ailsa Chang.

As podcaster Scott Adams might express it, there is simply no “payday” for these people in recognizing what makes us, as humans, unique. Yet there is a payday for saying the opposite, no matter how ludicrous. It would take a deep psychoanalysis to say where the media and scientific hostility to human uniqueness comes from. On that I defer to Wesley Smith. Humans are manifestly exceptional in nature — not in our biology, but in everything else about us. Not to see this requires a willed blindness.