Chimpanzees Nicer Cousins Taught Me . . .

When I return to Africa in a few months I’ll make my base in the same spot near Kampala, Uganda where I’ve gone for my last two trips there.

I’m blessed to have been in Africa four times now. It’s some of the most incredible landscape I’ve ever seen. It’s unique because it’s where the dense, Western forest meets the dry savannah.

A bit farther east is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where I was able to see the Bonobo chimps. I’ve now seen all the families of Great Apes, including chimps, gorillas and orangutans.

Bonobos are important because they’re the most closely related to humans. They only live in one area near the Congo River, and they’re different from any other primate except humans. They’re intensely social.

Bonobos develop strong bonds between each other, and they’re much nicer and social almost to a fault. Something I’ve been thinking about at this anniversary of September 11th.

Did you know that Bonobo chimps will share with a stranger before a chimp they already know? Researchers have observed them opening doors for strangers, and sharing their food.

Bonobos care about each other and are always trying to extend their social network. They even like to communicate like we do these days. They love touchscreens. At the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa they have a Bonobo chimp that communicates with researchers by tapping 400 different icons matched with words on a large touchscreen.2

Bonobos act very different from the larger chimpanzees. Chimps look mean, and they’re muscular. They have bigger arms and hands than any man. And you can see with the way they move their muscles just ripple. It surprised me.

But the way they move together and give each other signals… they’re like a bunch of aggressive gang youths giving you a stare down. They scowl at you. Even the older ones are balding with thick necks and they still seem like they can tear you to pieces.

Bonobos are slimmer and appear more like humans, partly because they walk on two feet often. Their mannerisms and actions are so much like ancient human societies that also valued sharing.

The oldest societies still value sharing above almost anything else.

Here we have the “you got this round, I’ll get the next one” mentality. But when I traveled to ancient cultures, where I needed help with directions and communicating, it’s part of their culture to share and help you. They don’t even expect a “thank you.” They think it’s funny when you say it after you receive help.

I found it was similar in Bali. The Balinese Hindu follow three rules to live by. They’re called the “Tri Hita Karana.” And one is to do your best to make sure your actions affect others in a positive way. Your work and day-to-day activities have to support and strengthen your relationship with those around you.

The ancient Polynesians have a similar view. They live by their understanding of aloha. They strive for the relaxation, happiness and long life that come from sharing. Alo means share, and ha means breath. So aloha means to share the breath of life.

In fact, one of the five principles of the spirit of aloha is akahai. That’s the gentle kindness that includes consideration toward everyone.

It’s simple to emulate.

The akahai principle of aloha is about giving and helping, sharing the breath of life, and being considerate and altruistic.

There are four ways to accomplish this:

  1. Help strangers – Commit to helping one person you don’t know each day.
  1. Make personal contact – Help people one on one. For example, don’t mail in your donation. Volunteer instead.
  1. Build your core, give your energy – Take care of yourself and your body so that you have energy to help others.
  1. Be a partner – Help for help’s sake. Helping is giving. Don’t expect thanks. Give and share from the heart.

You don’t have to fix everything, or be the rescuer like our 9/11 heroes. All you have to do is care enough to be there. That’s what makes a difference to the people around you.

To Your Good Health,

Al Sears, MD

Al Sears, MD

1. Tan J, Hare B. “Bonobos Share with Strangers.” PLOS ONE, 2013; 8 (1): e51922.
2. Goldman J. “Why animals can’t resist touchscreen technology.” BBC. Retrieved Sept 8, 2014.