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home : education : schools August 1, 2014

1/21/2014 12:28:00 PM
Sisters gets a glimpse at primate behavior
By Bunny Thompson

Leo Tolstoy may have written "War and Peace" in 1869, but the evolution of war and peace can be traced back millions of years in the study of primates. Have humans always waged war? Is warring an ancient evolutionary adaptation or a relatively recent behavior - and what does that tell us about human nature?

Dr. Michel Waller presented these questions plus assessments of the similarities and differences in primates and humans to gain a clearer picture of where we, as humans, came from in hopes of finding a better understanding of who we are and, most importantly, where we are going.

Speaking to a full house at The Belfry in last Thursday night's Sisters Science Club's first 2014 "Frontiers in Science" lecture, Dr. Waller, PhD instructor at COCC, spoke about his research into great ape behavior and how it is related to early human behavior. He compared humans with their closest specie - apes - analyzing aggressive behaviors, communications, cooperation, monogamy and sex. Dr. Waller's studies have taken him to Senegal to study wild chimpanzees and into the Democratic Republic of Congo to study wild bonobos.

According to Dr. Waller, war - or, technically speaking, aggressive behavior - can be traced millions of years to other primates, and particularly to chimpanzees. However, adaptations to deal with the unique physical and social environment exist in both apes and humans. Long before humans began waging war for political purposes, war or rivalries have often been resource-driven, a means of successfully competing for food, territory or the ability to pass along our own genetic material.

This drive to war can change with the environment and led Dr. Waller to study the chimpanzee and the bonobo. Chimpanzees are a patriarchal society and tend to be more aggressive. Male chimpanzees seem to resort to warfare to weaken their neighbors, with the ultimate goal of expanding their own territories, gaining new resources, and attracting new mates.

Bonobos are a matriarchal society and are more peaceful. When bonobo females enter a new group, they make strong friends and allies with other females.

Apes are the closest relative to humans, but because chimpanzees and bonobos are not proficient swimmers, the formation of the Congo River several million years ago led to the separation of the bonobo and the common chimpanzee. Sharing 98.5 percent of the same DNA as humans, it's not surprising that bonobos possess very human-like qualities. They embody a profound intelligence and a deep emotional capacity. In fact, in captivity, bonobos have picked up on many facets of human culture, sometimes simply through observation of the researchers around them. They have learned how to communicate in human languages, use tools, play music, and in one case, a bonobo actually tried her hand at driving a golf cart (only to crash into a tree shortly after).

Dr. Waller explained that resources on the chimpanzee side of the Congo River were scarcer and the environment for them was harsher. Resources on the bonobo side of the Congo River tended to be more plentiful, making life a bit easier for the bonobo.

"His studies on bonobos challenge the way we think about genes versus behavior," said Dr. Bob Collins, retired neurologist and head of the Sisters Science Club. "A lot of their behavior, both the matriarchal society and the lack of fighting, seems to be because the food supply is more plentiful than the ordinary chimpanzee. Maybe we as humans could take some lessons from these fascinating primates."

How close are humans to our ape counterparts, and is our behavior an ancient evolution? Is war in our genes? Dr. Waller spoke about the evolutionary component of both apes and humans and he offered many study results suggesting we share not only genetic similarities but also behavioral similarities with the ape. Have humans always waged war? Is warring an ancient evolutionary adaptation or a relatively recent behavior? Ultimately, Dr. Waller said, there is an evolutionary element to these questions but the conclusion is up to the individual.

The second in the Sisters Science Club "Frontiers In Science" 2014 series is Amy E. Harper, PhD, presenting "Anthropology of Islam: Lifting the Veil on Cultural Norms." Dr. Harper will examine the issues of gender, power, and subordination in the world of Islam. The event will be held at The Belfry on February 20 at 7 p.m. Doors open at 6 p.m. for a social hour and light food.

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