By Russ Campbell, SMT Center

DURHAM, N.C. – What can a little known primate reveal about the elements that have allowed human civilization to progress?

Assisting her husband with a series of studies in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2005, author Vanessa Woods was inspired that the Bonobo Great Ape can cooperate with all ages and genders of its band.

“We don’t know if they even understand what’s going on but because their emotions don’t get in the way, they’re amazing cooperators,” Woods said.

Now a research scientist at Duke University studying the psychology of bonobos and chimpanzees, particularly where it relates to cooperation, Woods has documented her experiences in her memoir , which was published in May.

“We’re interested in looking at our two closest relatives and figuring out what makes cooperation possible and what constrains it,” she said. “What we’ve found is that emotion and tolerance are the constraining factor of cooperation. When emotions get in the way, that’s when you see a breakdown in cooperation.”

Woods husband, Brian Hare, now an assistant professor of evolutionary biology at Duke, conducted an experiment in Ngamba that indicated chimpanzees were partial to other chimps depending on their skills. “If they were betrayed, they remembered, and retaliated,” he added.

In a cooperation experiment with chimpanzees and bonobos in order to get to the food at either end of a six-foot plank, the plank had to be pulled by a rope that was threaded through loops at the same time. If both ends of the rope were not pulled at the same time, it unraveled and no one ate.

Woods wrote, “If the chimps liked each other, they cooperated, often on the first trial. If the chimps hated each other or if one was scared of the other one, then you got the situation everyone else had encountered – one chimp monopolizing the rope and the other one sitting in the corner, refusing to play the game.”

Bonobos, however, tended to work together regardless of skill level, age, or gender. They worked together and ate together.

“Everyone needs to cooperate and business is all about a daily cooperation, sometimes across a very diverse group of people,” Woods said. “It’s helpful to understand what constrains cooperation in our closest living relatives. We need to understand where some of this is coming from so we can use our amazing intelligence to learn from the bonobos to overcome emotion to do something that is beneficial.”

In her book, Woods looks at her own relationships and the relationships forged with the bonobos in an area of the world that has seen some of the most horrific elements of war humans have ever created.

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