Is Evil in Our Genes?

Bonobo photo image.

The Gentle Bonobo

Within the biological family tree of primates, we, the human species, have very close cousins whose genetic blueprints are identical to ours by as much as 98.7 per cent: These are the “bonobo” of the species Pan paniscus (pictured at the left), and the “common chimpanzee” of the species Pan troglodytes.

      The bonobo (/bə.ˈnoʊ.boʊ/ or /ˈbɒ.nə.boʊ/; Pan paniscus), formerly called the pygmy chimpanzee and less often, the dwarf or gracile chimpanzee, is an endangered great ape and one of the two species making up the genus Pan; the other is Pan troglodytes, or the common chimpanzee. Although the name “chimpanzee” is sometimes used to refer to both species together, it is usually understood as referring to the common chimpanzee, whereas Pan paniscus is usually referred to as the bonobo.

      The bonobo is distinguished by relatively long legs, pink lips, dark face and tail-tuft through adulthood, and parted long hair on its head. The bonobo is found in a 500,000 km2 (190,000 sq mi) area of the Congo Basin in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central Africa. The species is omnivorous and inhabits primary and secondary forests, including seasonally inundated swamp forests. Political instability in the region and the timidity of bonobos has meant there has been relatively little field work done observing the species in its natural habitat.

      Along with the common chimpanzee, the bonobo is the closest extant relative to humans. Because the two species are not proficient swimmers, the formation of the Congo River 1.5–2 million years ago possibly led to the speciation of the bonobo. Bonobos live south of the river, and thereby were separated from the ancestors of the common chimpanzee, which live north of the river. There is no concrete data on population numbers, but the estimate is between 29,500 and 50,000 individuals. The species is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List and is threatened by habitat destruction and human population growth and movement, though commercial poaching is the most prominent threat. They typically live 40 years in captivity; their lifespan in the wild is unknown. [Wikipedia]

The bonobo and the common chimpanzee may be considered siblings in the primate Pan genus family, but they are as different from each other behaviorally as day and night, despite the fact that they share between them 99.6 per cent of their genomes.  Only recently studied more closely by animal researchers, bonobos have become known for their peace-loving, gentler nature, in contrast to the more violent-prone reputation of the chimpanzee’s nature.  It almost seems as if the bonobo embodies the good angelic side of our human nature, while the common chimpanzee seems to harbor and express the dark shadowy side of human nature.

Here are fascinating research findings from an article published by The Vancouver Sun, about how these two primate species seem to separately mirror the duality of our own human nature.

    Behold the bonobo, our ape cousin that’s kinder and gentler than the chimp or, well, us. Now scientists have mapped the primate’s DNA, and some researchers say that may eventually reveal secrets about how the darker side of our nature evolved.

    Graphic representation for the Timeline of Human and Later Primate Evolution

    Timeline of Human and Later Primate Evolution

    Scientists have found that we are as close genetically to the peace-loving but little-known bonobo as we are to the more violent and better understood chimpanzee. It’s as if they are siblings and we are cousins, related to them both equally, sharing some traits with just bonobos and other characteristics with just chimps…. (According to) study lead author Kay Prufer, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute in Germany: “Humans are a little like a mosaic of bonobo and chimpanzee genomes.

    Bonobos and chimps have distinctly different behaviours that can be seen in humans, with bonobos displaying what might be thought of as our better angels, said Duke University researcher Brian Hare.  Bonobos make love, not war. Chimps have been documented to kill and make war. Bonobos share food with total strangers, but chimps do not. Bonobos stay close to their mothers — who even pick out their sons’ mates — long after infancy like humans. But chimps tend to use tools better and have bigger brains, like humans.

    Is the bonobo genome the secret to the biology of peace?” asked Hare, who was not involved in the new research. “They have done something in their evolution that even humans can’t do. They don’t have the dark side we do.

    “If we only studied chimps, we’d get a skewed view of human evolution,” he said.

    Bonobos, chimps and humans shared a single common ancestor from about six million years ago, Prufer said. Chimps and bonobos shared the same common ancestor until about a million years ago, when the Congo River formed. Then the bonobos developed on one side of the river, the chimps the other. They became different species, even though scientists didn’t realize that until about 90 years ago.

    Bonobo heads are slightly smaller and their teeth are arranged differently. In behaviour, bonobos are far more tolerant, more social. They are inordinately sexual. Instead of releasing tension by fighting, they couple repeatedly, Hare said. Bonobos are ruled by alpha females, chimps by males.

    In some ways — especially when looking at the physiology of the brain — it’s as if a bonobo is a juvenile chimp that doesn’t develop, Hare said. Chimps get more violent as they age; bonobos don’t.

    While the scientific name for bonobos is Pan paniscus, “they should be Peter Pan,” Hare said. “They never grow up and we have lots of data to support this idea. Much of their psychology seems to be frozen.

    Some researchers say Hare has romanticized the bonobo too much. Emory University researcher Bill Hopkins says he has more bonobo scars than chimp scars on his body. Sure, bonobos will bite, but they won’t kill, Hare said.  [Emphasis supplied.]

The findings raise some interesting questions, the foremost of which is: Are evil or negative traits the result of our genes or DNA?  If animals also have souls or a consciousness, are bonobos more developed spiritually (for whatever reason) than chimpanzees, or us for that matter?  Is a matriarchal society similar to the bonobo’s more conducive to a more peaceful and harmonious coexistence?

In the evolutionary scheme of animal hominid life, it is said that both the human species (homo sapiens) and the Pan/chimpanzee species evolved from a common hominid ancestor. At a certain point in the evolutionary timeline (refer to the timeline graphic above), the evolutionary line from that common ancestor split and diverged giving rise to the human species and the Pan/chimpanzee species. Eventually the Pan/chimpanzee genus further split into the bonobo species and the common chimpanzee species that we know of today. Genetically then, there is a common genome source that is shared by the human species with the two chimpanzee species, and the resulting shared gene structure is expressing across the board in the mentioned Pan-Homo species. Therein lies the value of knowing and understanding the natures of both chimp species in relation to ours.

The scientific research into the genes of bonobos and common chimpanzees has provided a lot of information with respect to the ancestry of their species and ours. It is postulated that they and we shared a last common ancestor around 7 million years ago, before splitting off from our species’ evolutionary line.

      DNA evidence suggests the bonobo and common chimpanzee species effectively separated from each other fewer than one million years ago. The Pan line split from the last common ancestor shared with humans approximately six to seven million years ago. Because no species other than Homo sapiens has survived from the human line of that branching, both Pan species are the closest living relatives of humans and cladistically are equally close to humans. The recent genome data confirms the genetic equidistance.   [Wikipedia]

The neurological similarities and differences within the Pan species and between theirs and ours deserve more exploration and research study by neuroscientists and primatologists. This field of scientific study is certainly a very promising fertile ground for yielding discoveries relative to comparative brain functionality between the species, mental processes, and perhaps even the nature of consciousness, itself.

      Recent studies show that there are significant brain differences between bonobos and chimps. The brain anatomy of bonobos has more developed and larger regions assumed to be vital for feeling empathy, sensing distress in others and feeling anxiety, which makes them less aggressive and more empathic than their close relatives. They also have a thick connection between the amygdala, an important area that can spark aggression, and the ventral anterior cingulate cortex, which helps control impulses. This thicker connection may make them better at regulating their emotional impulses and behavior.   [Wikipedia]

The concept of evolving human consciousness suggests that the evil traits of our species are the result of having evolved from and recently emerged (in terms of evolutionary time) out of the animal world’s survival modality of instinctive fear, insecurity, and power control or domination, in the course of becoming self-aware beings; that our species is still undergoing the transitional phase from a raw animal existence in nature to becoming more fully human; that the evolutionary process of our species is not yet complete; and that our evolution is completed upon becoming fully-realized divine or spiritual beings or fully-conscious beings.  

In this paradigm of evolving consciousness, we are not inherently evil nor do we have a bad human nature.  We are merely stuck in the ignorance of not knowing what or who we truly are as we grapple with the darkness of that ignorance.  We need to go further down this tunnel of darkness until we see the light at its very end — until we arrive at the full realization of what and who we truly are.  

There are a number of our species who have reached the tunnel’s end and have seen the light beyond its darkness. These are the illumined souls who are the spiritual teachers of our species. They show us the way out of the tunnel and into the light. Their teachings reveal to us how to complete the evolution of our species through what mystics call “the enlightenment of the soul.”

On a positive end note, we can be hopeful.  If the bonobos as a species succeeded in evolving beyond and overcoming their baser animal instincts, perhaps we, the human species, could do the same or even better.

(Note: Related articles and blogs have been published by the BBC, Ars Technica, and The Dalai Lama Center.)


A Postscript and Addendum

The Last Great Ape (richly informative 2007 NOVA documentary on the Bonobo)
[Acknowledgment to Copke Luar for posting the video on YouTube.]

Ape Genius (NOVA-National Geographic documentary on primate intelligence)
[Acknowledgment to Documentary for publishing the video on YouTube.]

Here are other relevant articles, documentaries, or information sources, I have come across since publishing this blog:

  • TED Talk by Bonobo Researcher Dr. Susan Savage-Rumbaugh

    [Acknowledgment to TED Talks for publishing the video on YouTube.]

  • Lucy and Kanzi, Radiolab’s program episode on a chimpanzee named Lucy and a bonobo named Kanzi.

  • Kanzi: An Ape of Genius
    “Kanzi: An Ape of Genius” was produced in 1993 by NHK, Japan Boadcasting Corporation. This film documentary features the research conducted by Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh over Kanzi, an exceptionally intelligent bonobo chimpanzee, who has been the subject of a life study at the Georgia State University Language Research Center in Atlanta, GA.

    Facsimile image for Kanzi NHK documentary. [Acknowledgment to flactemb for publishing the videos on YouTube.]

  • TED Talk by Primatologist Isabel Behncke Izquierdo on Bonobos

    [Acknowledgment to TED Talks for publishing the video on YouTube.]

  • A “yes! Magazine” article titled Warrior Baboons Give Peace a Chance, contributed by David Spero.

  • Congo Bonobos (2010): A New Conservation Initiative

    [Acknowledgment to Journeyman Pictures for publishing the video on YouTube.]

  • Bonobos and Chimpanzees,” a blog by Bonobos UK.

  • The Bonobo Connection (documentary submitted to the 2014 Wildscreen Festival)

    [Acknowledgment to Wildscreen Festival for publishing the video on YouTube.]

  • The World’s Smartest Apes

    [Acknowledgment to DOCUMENTARY TV for publishing the video on YouTube.]

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4 Responses to Is Evil in Our Genes?

  1. Jean Mishra says:

    Very thought provoking.


    • Specially tantalizing is the suggestion arising from the finding that the bonobos live in a matriarchal society where the females of the species dominate. That’s a problem the human species has been having for centuries if not thousands of years — too much male energy domination and suppression of the feminine in human civilization. The women of the world today should pick up the cue from the bonobos. Time for the women (mothers and wives specially) of the world to rise up and unite for spiritual oneness and global peace. 😉

      Thanks for commenting, Jean.


  2. Hendrik Schotte says:

    Perhaps I am coming around with a new phantasy or if you will paradigm, but its an information given by Madamme Blavatsky since end of the nineteen century that the apes are a product of giantlike humans who had sexual intercourse with prehistoric animals. The story of the Mahabharata where the generals of the apes and the generals of the humans form a peace treaty is not another invention, but is based on true stories.


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