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Claim: Bonobos help strangers without being asked, therefore humans are not special

bonobo/Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary

From ScienceDaily:

The impulse to be kind to strangers was long thought to be unique to humans, but research on bonobos suggests our species is not as exceptional in this regard as we like to think. Famously friendly apes from Africa’s Congo Basin, bonobos will go out of their way to help a stranger get food even when there is no immediate payback, researchers show. What’s more, they help spontaneously, without having to be asked first.

Who writes this copy? Many intelligent animals will assist strangers without being asked (see the self-taught therapy cat vid below), provided they perceive no loss or threat in doing so. Turtles, not known for high intelligence, will right each other, though they can’t right themselves.

Female bonobos leave the group where they were born to join a new group when they reach adulthood, where they form bonds with other unrelated adults they’ve never met. Bonobos, like humans, may simply be eager to make a good first impression.

“All relationships start between two strangers,” Tan said. “You meet a stranger, but you may meet them again, and this individual could become your future friend or ally. You want to be nice to someone who’s going to be important for you.” Paper. (public access) – Jingzhi Tan, Dan Ariely, Brian Hare. Bonobos respond prosocially toward members of other groups. Scientific Reports, 2017; 7 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-15320-w More.

Right. The typical bonobo is not socialized to be hostile to strangers but to get along with them. Animal empathy usually consists in applying the patterns of an existing type of relationship to a new situation. We should be more surprised when that doesn’t happen than when it does.

A story like this bonobo featurette (and many similar ones) rattles through the science media only for the purpose of asserting that humans are not special, not for any genuinely surprising information it provides.

But why? The claim is so obviously untrue that a prior will to believe against all evidence and reason seems to be a way of professing loyalty to naturalism. Even the simple fact that humans are studying bonobos and not the reverse is not a serious objection to a claim that is not made for science-based reasons in any event.

See also: Sheep “can recognise human faces” – BBC How about this?: Sheep could learn to identify any human body part if they needed to. That doesn’t mean they understand what faces mean to humans. But much science writing about animal minds today seems to depend on maintaining just this type of confusion.

Claim: Whales and dolphins have rich ‘human-like’ cultures and societies

Intelligence tests are unfair to apes

Are apes entering the Stone Age?

Self-taught therapy cat:


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