Are Bonobos Altruistic?

By Chris Mooney | June 2, 2010 9:05 am

Vanessa Woods CoverThis is a guest post from Vanessa Woods, author of the new book, Bonobo Handshake. Vanessa is a Research Scientist in Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University and studies the cognition of chimpanzees and bonobos in Congo.

In my new book Bonobo Handshake, I talk about a bonobo called Mimi who throws herself over the dead body of another bonobo.

Lipopo was a seven year old bonobo who was new to the group. Mimi wasn’t particularly fond of him, she just kindof ignored him most of the time. When Lipopo died, Mimi stood over the body and wouldn’t let the keepers take him.

The keepers turned up with long poles to take the body away, a scary sight for any bonobo – they are usually quite shy. But Mimi would not give up the body.

She pushed at the poles and she held on to the body. She just kept grooming his face and trying to keep the flies away. It was as though she was mourning his death but still felt she had to protect him.

The body was in a tight space, near the tunnel. She must have been afraid but she wouldn’t let him go. Then Crispin the vet turned up with the dart gun, which looks like a gun. The last thing these bonobos saw before their mothers died was a man with a gun. So Crispin comes out with the gun to try and get Mimi to leave the body, but she refused. She wouldn’t let Lipopo go.


Here is the video Brian took at the time:

Earlier in the month, I reported on the Altruistic parachute instructor whose heroic act made national news. Some researchers think altruism is what makes us human.

But Felix Warneken has found evidence for altruism in chimpanzees. And now with this video on Mimi, how else would you interpret it except for altruism in bonobos?

*My new book Bonobo Handshake is out now. It’s available on Amazon, or through my website


Comments (3)

  1. I’m a supporter of the Great Ape Project and the general idea that great apes are so cognitively developed that they should be treated similarly to beings that have some level of personal rights.

    That said, I think this behavior is being over-interpreted. She’s defending her group member from a perceived attack, and I don’t think that’s altruistic. She’s being irrational in that the group member is dead, but I think her behavior might have been different if she had awoken to see some bonobo corpse she had never witnessed before in the yard, and then saw the keepers try to remove it.

    It is moving to see how upset she and the other bonobos are, however.

  2. LRU

    The video is very moving to watch. I look forward to reading more posts and your book.

    Also, your new book is listed as Brilliant and Highbrow on the Approval Matrix in New York Magazine’s June 7, 2010 edition. Bravo!

  3. ponderingfool

    And now with this video on Mimi, how else would you interpret it except for altruism in bonobos?
    Grief? Maybe I have watched too many TV shows (you know the ones where someone dies & a someone close to the dead have to be pulled away from the body) and that is biasing my view but what I am reminded of is someone holding onto to someone who has passed and going through denial more than protection. Regardless it is amazing behavior to watch, very fascinating and cool.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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