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Collaboration versus competition in the animal world


January 9, 2018

As a general rule, collaboration is a human thing that the majority of animals aren’t exactly known for.

Sure, there are familial species that work together and situations in which animals hunt together or combine resources, but they also spend a lot of time in competition.

Observe just about any non-human species and it becomes clear they have different perspectives from humans — even pampered domestic pets steal each other’s food, chase one another away from water, fight over toys or the most comfortable napping spot … whatever it is, it’s worthy of dispute.

As humans, we hold helpfulness in high esteem. As a key component of social interaction and a critical part of civility, in fact it’s one of the traits that separates us from the animals, allowing us to develop complex social systems and advance as a species.

With such a high premium placed on teamwork and collaboration, for humans it’s a natural next-step that antisocial behavior is always undesirable.

However, it turns out the norms may be reversed for some other species, and behavior that runs counter to social benefit might actually be attractive.

Interested in understanding which traits were valued more in human’s closest relatives, biological and evolutionary anthropologists from Duke University and Scotland teamed up to study behavior preferences in bonobos, a relative of the chimpanzee.

Humans have evolved to cultivate and seek out collaborators, accelerating their development, and previous research has found humans as young as 3-months old gravitate toward people who are helpful. However there has been little research among the apes to determine if they do the same, according to the study published Thursday.

The researchers worked with 24 adult and sub-adult bonobos, conducting a series of experiments aimed at revealing which they would be attracted to.

In one experiment, the apes were shown video of animated shapes interacting. The videos began with a shape trying to climb a steep hill and failing several times until another shape came along and helped by pushing it up the hill. In a second version, another shape pushed the struggling shape down the hill then climbed to the top itself. After watching the videos, the bonobos were presented pieces of apple with corresponding shapes from the videos placed on top of them and allowed to choose.

Only two of the group chose the helper shape, while the others — showing an overwhelming preference — chose the shape that had acted as a hindrance to the shape trying to climb the hill.

In another experiment, the bonobos watched as human actors performed skits in which they either helped another retrieve a toy that had been dropped, or aggressively snatched a toy from another person. The helper and hinderer then approached the apes with a piece of apple in their hands and the researchers observed which one they approached first. Overwhelmingly, the adult bonobos in the group chose to take an apple from the hinderer rather than the helper.

Even though bonobos are regarded as prosocial animals, consistently throughout all tests performed, researchers found they were attracted to individuals who engaged in antisocial obstructive or hindering behavior, the complete opposite of human preference. Those traits, they speculated, are tied to dominance, which is desirable within bonobo groups and more beneficial in conflict and mating scenarios.

Based on the findings, they recommended more work should be done in other primate groups in an effort to understand the divergence that made humans a collaborative species.

Research such as this also highlights the influence environment and circumstance can have on social values, serving as the foundation for cultural differences — even in the animal world.

Sharna Johnson is always searching for ponies. Contact her at:


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