two baby bonobos playing together two baby bonobos playing together Bonobos help each other, even when there's nothing in it for them. (Photo: Gudkov Andrey / Shutterstock)

Being kind to strangers isn't just a human thing

Bonobos do it, too.

Helping strangers is more than just nice. It causes humans to develop massive social networks. Our world as we know it would not be possible without a willingness to trust strangers, be they friends or business partners.

Where did this trust come from? How did it evolve, transforming our species into the worldwide web of human connection it is today?

A hint may lie with an ape called the bonobo. There's new research by a group of scientists from Duke University including Jingzhi Tan and Brian Hare. They teamed up with Israeli-American behavioral economist Dan Ariely, who usually studies humans instead of animals, for this project. Their science suggests that showing kindness toward strangers is not a uniquely human thing; bonobos do it, too. That means treating strangers kindly may be older than humanity itself. and, quite unexpectedly for us, superstar

Researchers say the bonobos' skills resemble the technology used by early humans. Researchers say the bonobos' skills resemble the technology used by early humans. (Photo: Gudkov Andrey / Shutterstock)

In the experiment, scientists dangled a piece of an apple above one bonobo's room. The bonobo couldn't reach the apple, but another bonobo in a nearby room could climb up and unhook the pin the apple was dangling from, letting the apple fall into the first cage. The question was, would the second bonobo help the first one get a snack?

The two bonobos didn't know each other. The second one was also busy playing with toys. But the scientists found that the second bonobo did frequently help the first get an apple, even if the first one didn't ask for help.

Bonobos are humanity's closest cousins, along with chimpanzees. Chimpanzees tend to be much more cliquey and aggressive toward strangers but, as the experiment showed, bonobos are happy to help those they don't know. Humans and bonobos were the same species at one point. That means learning about bonobos can teach us about our own evolution.

"The most exciting puzzle for the future will be determining why humans evolved the potential for trusting relationships with strangers in a wider variety of contexts," wrote the researchers. "Bonobo networking has much to teach us about the origins of the human network we all rely upon."

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Being kind to strangers isn't just a human thing
Bonobos do it too. New research on our ape cousins might tell us why we form social networks.