Comparing Bonobos to Humans, the Former May Be more Empathetic Than we are

Scott Deshefy

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Ravens are keen observers with remarkable cognitive abilities, even absent busts of Pallas for poetic vantage. They console others of their flock vanquished in fights and assess knowledge of other birds, giving deference to those of greater intelligence in group decision-making. Lions can count roars and compare sizes of competing prides in territorial disputes. Rats exhibit acts of empathy and kindness. Orcas, elephants and giraffes mourn their dead, and arrays of animal species, primates especially, protest injustice. Horses, anecdotally known for sizing-up good and bad people they encounter, might possess nuanced abilities to read emotional states of people and fellow equines alike. That attribute may explain storied accomplishments of Clever Hans and Beautiful Jim Key even more impressively than disputed ciphering abilities. Fellow ethologist Frans de Waal, author and expert on primate behavior, comparing bonobos to humans, thinks the former may be more empathetic than we are. Supporting his conclusion, in addition to decades of behavioral research, areas of bonobo brains responsive to other’s distress are larger than ours. Furthermore, brain pathways for defusing aggression are more highly developed in bonobo than humans. No surprise there.

For centuries, destruction of the natural world, acts of cruelty and alleged “dominion” over other animals from which callousness stemmed were deemed acceptable. Responsible was a depraved synergy of religious dogma, capitalism, and moral and scientific naivete. Science historian-philosopher Carolyn Merchant also points out the significance of a misogynistic, exploitative declaration of war made against nonhuman life propounded by Francis Bacon. In it, nature and all forms of life were denied any intrinsic value, objectified solely for technological control, extermination or human use. Only after incomprehensible suffering, today rivaled by factory farming, did advances in the biological sciences gradually reaffirm the obvious, that other animals besides humans were sentient. First, Jeremy Bentham made “can they suffer?” a benchmark in animal rights and moral philosophy, enabling science and common sense to dispel Cartesian falsehoods underpinned by western religions. In the false dichotomy of saved and soulless, even vivisections were excusable to some because nonhuman animals, according to Descartes, were considered emotionless “machines” incapable of pain, howls of agony notwithstanding. By mid 20th century, 100 years after Darwin’s Origin of Species, as Church influences started to wane, the breadth and depth of nonhuman animal intelligence and emotions became vividly, irrefutably clear. All prejudicial roadblocks to moral equivalency were gone, save one: self-awareness.

Self-awareness doesn’t develop in humans until about age two. Yet, for decades, anthropocentric bias made that distinction its last gasp to deny other animals inclusion into moral circles. Now, even that impasse has been obliterated. Mirror tests reflect that not only mammals, but corvids (crows, jays, magpies, et al) and other birds are capable of self-awareness. It’s likely that many non-avian, non-mammalian species endowed with densely packed neurons in their brains, are capable of self-awareness as well, regardless of encephalization quotients. It’s not surprising then that play, and the pleasure and enrichment that come with it, is widespread among the animal kingdom, even among brainy invertebrates such as octopi and cuttlefish, which exhibit noticeable personalities. Tool use and cultural exchange of information are common as well, as evidenced by other animals enjoying toys. Belugas, for instance, will join one another in blowing bubble rings for mutual enjoyment, and cats of course will bat and chase just about anything they can swat. Animal behaviorists and others schooled in the biological sciences know definitively, after centuries of Genesis-encouraged disinformation to the contrary, that many other nonhuman animal species have complex emotions very much in common with our own. As Frans de Waal notes, this is a very weighty realization because it extends moral relevance to a vast expanse of the biological community. As sentient beings, nonhuman animals must be included within the same moral circle to which we belong and afforded compulsory and equivalent protections accordingly. It is therefore the great irony of our time that, as biological knowledge continues to expand that membership, political illogic and societal hostilities work to restrict it, at least as it extends to fellow humans.

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