Bonobos, and eating better together

March 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

I walked through my living room on Saturday morning, where NPR was playing as it often is, and I overheard a scientist explaining his recent work on bonobo apes (close relatives of chimpanzees and humans).  The sentence, “they prefer to eat together,” caught my ear and made me stop in my path, instantly forgetting whatever chore it was I was on my way to do.

It turns out that the researchers had found that  bonobos, when given the choice between having a whole pile of food to themselves or letting another bonobo (not a relative) in from a neighboring room, prefer to let in the other bonobo to share the meal with them.  This stands in contrast to chimpanzees, who also share food but only when they want another chimp to stop harassing them.

It was striking to me that these large apes, so closely related to us, have an impulse, maybe even a desire, to be with others when they eat even if it means less food for themselves.  I feel that humans, also, are really made to eat together, not by ourselves in cars and cubicles and in front of the television.  There is an assortment of research showing that children are healthier, perform better academically, and are less likely to misuse drugs, if they eat regularly with their families.

And I don’t think it’s necessarily only families eating together that is good for us.  Anytime we come together to share food with friends or community or even strangers, we form a bond.  We take our biological need to eat and turn it into an opportunity to nourish ourselves both physically and socially/emotionally.  We relate to one another.  We can learn of one another’s habits and traditions.  We can swap stories and establish common ground.  We also share meals to symbolize gratitude for bounty and a sense of abundance, and by doing so, our sense of abundance grows.  I think really good things can happen when we share meals.

It’s also interesting to note that chimps, who prefer not to share their meals, have patriarchal tribes and stage homicidal raids on neighboring groups of chimps.  The bonobos on the other hand, are matriarchal and they never have violent conflict.  Actually, they resolve any contentious situations with, well, how to put this delicately?… a little hubba hubba, shall we say.  Hey, I learned it from the scientist!

Of course, I don’t think that embracing a bonobo style of life, and living in a flower-power free-love commune is the very best way to transform our society for the better.  Indeed, it would cause vast amounts of trouble.  However, I do think we can still learn a thing or two about community and abundance from these peaceful, generous apes.

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