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The rarity of bonobo adoption as an argument for human exceptionalism


At Nature, a recent report of bonobo females adopting outgroup babies was hailed as a primate first. But this story is not what it seems. Let’s cut through some pop science assumptions (video footage provided):

Among dogs and cats, adoption, including interspecies adoption, has often been documented…

Tomcats also adopt kittens… So will male dogs… Not only will tomcats adopt a kitten but at least one tomcat adopted a guinea pig…

Could this be a clue?: Most animal whose adoption behavior we have catalogued were domestic animals cared for by humans. They were not especially (or anyway not immediately) worried about survival. For them, food is found in the cupboard by pleading, not the wilderness by hunting or foraging. Perhaps they can afford to show qualities that they would not otherwise show, as a result of living with humans.

In a way, the willingness of our domestic animals to adopt other animals’ offspring — relative to that of the bonobos, according to researchers — is an argument for human exceptionalism. Given a chance, we break nature’s rules. We do things differently.

Denyse O’Leary, “At Nature: Bonobo chimpanzees adopt orphans, a first for great apes” at Mind Matters News

The willingness of our pets to adopt other animals’ offspring — relative to that of the wild chimpanzees — is an argument for human exceptionalism. The real story is a reason that humans are not just animals.

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The fact that we see this in our domestic animals doesn't mean it's a result of domestication. More likely it's just that we see these animals a lot more often. Mammal moms and bird moms sometimes adopt other babies, but we aren't going to see them because mammal moms ALSO try to keep their broods hidden. Even in a domestic situation, a mama dog will try to keep her babies hidden from humans unless we create a situation where she has no choice.polistra
March 28, 2021
05:43 AM

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