Contemplating Madness

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What can the DNA of bonobos teach us about what it means to be human?

An international team of researchers has mapped the genome of the bonobo for the first time, revealing that this great ape shares as much DNA with humans as its more aggressive cousin, the chimpanzee. Identifying and understanding how all three genomes overlap, researchers say, could offer new insights into what makes each species look and behave so differently — despite their near-identical genetic blueprints.
One of the most marked differences between chimps and bonobos is the way each species resolves arguments. Chimps tend to address conflict with violence; bonobos, on the other hand, prefer to settle scores with (non-procreative, sometimes homosexual) sex. When it comes to bonding with others in their group, bonobos are also known to eschew forms of violent male dominance (typical among chimps) in favor of prosocial behavior like food-sharing. Stark behavioral differences such as these have even led scientists to refer to bonobos affectionately as “hippie chimps.”
Researchers aren’t entirely sure what evolutionary pressures would give rise to such dissimilar social practices, but researchers like Kay Prüfer — bioinformatician at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany and lead author on the bonobo sequencing study, published in today’s issue of Nature — believe this behavioral divergence began two million years ago, when populations of the common ancestor of chimps and bonobos were permanently separated by Africa’s Congo River. By one million years later, speculates Prüfer, they had evolved into the separate species we know today.
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What can the DNA of bonobos teach us about what it means to be human?

An international team of researchers has mapped the genome of the bonobo for the first time, revealing that this great ape shares as much DNA with humans as its more aggressive cousin, the chimpanzee. Identifying and understanding how all three genomes overlap, researchers say, could offer new insights into what makes each species look and behave so differently — despite their near-identical genetic blueprints.

One of the most marked differences between chimps and bonobos is the way each species resolves arguments. Chimps tend to address conflict with violence; bonobos, on the other hand, prefer to settle scores with (non-procreative, sometimes homosexual) sex. When it comes to bonding with others in their group, bonobos are also known to eschew forms of violent male dominance (typical among chimps) in favor of prosocial behavior like food-sharing. Stark behavioral differences such as these have even led scientists to refer to bonobos affectionately as “hippie chimps.”

Researchers aren’t entirely sure what evolutionary pressures would give rise to such dissimilar social practices, but researchers like Kay Prüfer — bioinformatician at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany and lead author on the bonobo sequencing study, published in today’s issue of Nature — believe this behavioral divergence began two million years ago, when populations of the common ancestor of chimps and bonobos were permanently separated by Africa’s Congo River. By one million years later, speculates Prüfer, they had evolved into the separate species we know today.

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Filed under science biology genetics evolution

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