Scientists studying bonobo chimpanzees at a sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo have found that apes raised with their mothers tend to cuddle and comfort others who are in distress, but that orphaned chimps show markedly less empathy toward others. Along with the common chimpanzee, bonobos are human beings’ closest living relative.
Professor Frans de Waal of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and his colleague, lead researcher Dr Zanna Clay, found that orphaned bonobos are not only less likely to comfort their fellow apes than non-orphans, but also had more difficulty managing their own emotions. After a fight, for example, orphans would get “very upset” and scream for minutes, while chimps who were reared by their mothers were more resilient, snapping out of an emotional outburst in just seconds.
The bonobos’ capacity for empathy closely resembles that of human children, whose ability to empathize with others tends to be limited when they have suffered abandonment or lack of emotional support at an early age.
“It’s almost as if one first need to have one’s own emotional house in order before one is ready to visit the emotional house of another,” the researchers explained.
The study was conducted at the Olola ya Bonobo sanctuary near Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where many young apes were left motherless by hunters. More than 370 post-distress interactions were observed, with about 318 caused by fighting and 55 caused by throwing tantrums. The scientists found that the better able a chimp was able to handle its own emotions, the more likely he or she was to cuddle and soothe a distressed friend.
The study also showed that orphaned bonobos played about half as often as non-orphans and had fewer friends, suggesting that “the way we develop our social and emotional skills and how we deal with the emotional world around us may be shared with that of our closest ape relatives,” researchers say.
Bonobos are perhaps best known for their high levels of sexual activity, which scientists say plays a role in their lower levels of aggression as compared to the common chimpanzee. They are the only non-human animal to engage regularly in face-to-face sexual intercourse. Whether this behavior also contributes to the bonobos’ capacity to feel empathy is unclear.