By: Nonie Arora

The Scientist and Nature Credit: Nonie Arora

A large bronze camel resides on Science Drive. Students may think it’s a landmark or a place to take scavenger hunt photos, but the camel has greater meaning.

At the annual Knut Schmidt-Nielsen Memorial Lecture, students learned that the Scientist and Nature statue depicts  Schmidt-Nielsen and his research subject for 20 years, the camel. Dr. Brian Hare explained how Schmidt-Nielsen, a pioneer in animal physiology, hoped to learn more about humans by studying camels.

Hare, a professor of evolutionary anthropology, works on what he calls the “exciting problem of human cooperation” by comparing animal species. He is interested particularly in cognition and evolution with goal of understanding what it is that makes us human and how we got that way.

Hare defines cognition as the “the inferential abilities that allow for flexibility and understanding.” He wants to see if species can solve a problem in a new situation with flexible problem solving. Two of the species Hare studies are bonobos and chimpanzees, the two closest living relatives of humans.

People often say that collaboration, negotiation and altruism are unique human traits, Hare said. But he has seen non-human apes exhibit these traits in his experiments. He believes that to see how we are special, we need an accurate assessment of differences between humans and non-human apes.

Many researchers believed non-human chimps could not negotiate when they had conflicting interests because these animals don’t have norms and language like humans. For a while researchers were faced with a paradox: animals were exhibiting cooperative behavior in nature but not in experiments. The problem was the small sample sizes of these trials. When Hare began working at sanctuaries in Africa – Ngamba, Tchimpounga, Lola ya Bonobo – with large numbers of apes, he found evidence of cooperation.

He observed that changing chimp pairings could turn on spontaneous cooperation, and if the chimps were tolerant of their partners, they were much more likely to work together to get the banana.

In another set up, dominant and subordinate apes were paired together. Although subordinates initially refused selfish offers by the dominant ape, after negotiation, a cooperative decision was made within a few minutes in 95 percent of the trials. Hare said he was surprised at the extent of cooperation given the apes’ lack of norms and language.

Bonobos at the Cincinnati Zoo. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Hare also found that bonobos will voluntarily share food with a stranger, but not with a member of their in-group. He hypothesizes this is because sharing with a stranger enables them to expand their social network, but sharing with an in-group member does not significantly alter that relationship.

Hare’s research has shown that traits traditionally associated with humans like tolerance and negotiation, among others, are also present in other non-human apes, suggesting that we may not be as different from them as we thought.