Unlike bonobos, humans imitate pointless actions


The human tendency to copy behaviour with no apparent purpose may be what sets us apart among the primates


Unlike human children, bonobos have less tendency to imitate non-functional activities.
Unlike human children, bonobos have less tendency to imitate non-functional activities.
Martin Harvey / Getty

The phrase “monkey see, monkey do” turns out to be completely misplaced. According to behavioural research involving bonobos and humans, copying the actions of others without any real reason or conscious understanding is a profoundly human activity.

A new study by researchers at the University of Birmingham and Durham University in England compared the imitative behaviour of 77 children, aged three to five, with 46 bonobos living in the world’s only bonobo sanctuary, the Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Bonobos (Pan paniscus) along with chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) are humans’ closest living relatives, sharing 99% of our DNA.

The research involved showing participants (children and bonobos) a small wooden box. A member of the research team would perform some arbitrary action over the box, such as waving a hand or tracing an imaginary line, before opening the box to reveal a reward. The box was then handed over without instructions. Most of the children spontaneously imitated the actions; none of the bonobos did so.

“Our results show striking species differences in imitation,” says psychologist Zanna Clay, the lead author of the study, published in the journal Child Development. “The young children were very willing to copy actions even though they served no obvious function, while the bonobos were not. Children’s tendency to imitate in this way likely represents a critical piece of the puzzle as to why human cultures differ so profoundly from those of great apes.”

Bonobos, best known for being much more peaceful than chimpanzees, have been shown to have enhanced social orientation and higher levels of social tolerance. Their lack of imitation, however, indicates it takes more than enhanced social orientation to trigger human-like cultural learning behaviours, says study co-author Claudio Tennie. “Although some animals show some limited abilities to copy, copying actions that have no apparent purpose appears to be uniquely human.”

Tim Wallace is a contributor to Cosmos Magazine
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