07:02
TED2011

Isabel Behncke: Evolution's gift of play, from bonobo apes to humans

Filmed:

With never-before-seen video, primatologist Isabel Behncke Izquierdo (a TED Fellow) shows how bonobo ape society learns from constantly playing -- solo, with friends, even as a prelude to sex. Indeed, play appears to be the bonobos' key to problem-solving and avoiding conflict. If it works for our close cousins, why not for us?

- Primatologist
TED Fellow Isabel Behncke Izquierdo studies the social behavior (and play behavior in particular) of wild bonobos in DR Congo. Full bio

I just came back from a community
00:15
that holds the secret to human survival.
00:17
It's a place where women run the show,
00:21
have sex to say hello,
00:24
and play rules the day --
00:26
where fun is serious business.
00:28
And no, this isn't Burning Man
00:31
or San Francisco.
00:33
(Laughter)
00:35
Ladies and gentlemen, meet your cousins.
00:37
This is the world of wild bonobos
00:40
in the jungles of Congo.
00:43
Bonobos are, together with chimpanzees,
00:45
your living closest relative.
00:48
That means we all share a common ancestor,
00:51
an evolutionary grandmother,
00:54
who lived around six million years ago.
00:56
Now, chimpanzees are well-known
01:00
for their aggression.
01:02
(Laughter)
01:04
But unfortunately,
01:07
we have made too much of an emphasis
01:09
of this aspect
01:11
in our narratives of human evolution.
01:13
But bonobos show us
01:16
the other side of the coin.
01:18
While chimpanzees
01:20
are dominated by big, scary guys,
01:22
bonobo society
01:25
is run by empowered females.
01:27
These guys have really worked something out,
01:31
since this leads to a highly tolerant society
01:34
where fatal violence
01:37
has not been observed yet.
01:39
But unfortunately,
01:42
bonobos are the least understood
01:44
of the great apes.
01:46
They live in the depths of the Congolese jungle,
01:48
and it has been very difficult to study them.
01:51
The Congo is a paradox --
01:54
a land of extraordinary biodiversity and beauty,
01:57
but also the heart of darkness itself --
02:01
the scene of a violent conflict
02:04
that has raged for decades
02:07
and claimed nearly as many lives
02:09
as the First World War.
02:12
Not surprisingly,
02:16
this destruction also endangers bonobo survival.
02:18
Bushmeat trades and forest loss
02:22
means we couldn't fill a small stadium
02:25
with all the bonobos that are left in the world --
02:28
and we're not even sure of that to be honest.
02:30
Yet, in this land of violence and chaos,
02:34
you can hear hidden laughter
02:38
swaying the trees.
02:41
Who are these cousins?
02:43
We know them as the "make love, not war" apes
02:46
since they have frequent, promiscuous
02:50
and bisexual sex
02:52
to manage conflict
02:54
and solve social issues.
02:56
Now, I'm not saying this is the solution
02:58
to all of humanity's problems --
03:00
since there's more to bonobo life
03:04
than the Kama Sutra.
03:06
Bonobos, like humans,
03:08
love to play throughout their entire lives.
03:10
Play is not just child's games.
03:12
For us and them,
03:14
play is foundational for bonding relationships
03:16
and fostering tolerance.
03:19
It's where we learn to trust
03:21
and where we learn about the rules of the game.
03:23
Play increases creativity
03:26
and resilience,
03:28
and it's all about the generation of diversity --
03:31
diversity of interactions,
03:34
diversity of behaviors,
03:36
diversity of connections.
03:38
And when you watch bonobo play,
03:41
you're seeing the very evolutionary roots
03:43
of human laughter, dance
03:46
and ritual.
03:48
Play is the glue
03:50
that binds us together.
03:52
Now, I don't know how you play,
03:54
but I want to show you a couple of unique clips
03:57
fresh from the wild.
03:59
First, it's a ball game bonobo-style --
04:01
and I do not mean football.
04:04
So here,
04:07
we have a young female and a male
04:09
engaged in a chase game.
04:11
Have a look what she's doing.
04:14
It might be the evolutionary origin of the phrase,
04:16
"she's got him by the balls."
04:18
(Laughter)
04:20
Only I think that he's rather loving it here, right?
04:23
Yeah.
04:27
(Laughter)
04:29
So sex play is common
04:31
in both bonobos and humans.
04:33
And this video is really interesting
04:35
because it shows --
04:37
this video's really interesting
04:39
because it shows the inventiveness
04:41
of bringing unusual elements into play --
04:43
such as testicles --
04:46
and also how play both requires trust
04:49
and fosters trust --
04:52
while at the same time being tremendous fun.
04:55
But play's a shapeshifter.
04:57
(Laughter)
04:59
Play's a shapeshifter,
05:02
and it can take many forms,
05:04
some of which are more quiet,
05:06
imaginative, curious --
05:08
maybe where wonder is discovered anew.
05:10
And I want you to see,
05:13
this is Fuku, a young female,
05:15
and she is quietly playing with water.
05:17
I think, like her,
05:19
we sometimes play alone,
05:21
and we explore the boundaries
05:23
of our inner and our outer worlds.
05:25
And it's that playful curiosity
05:28
that drives us to explore, drives us to interact,
05:30
and then the unexpected connections we form
05:34
are the real hotbed for creativity.
05:37
So these are just small tasters
05:41
into the insights that bonobo give us
05:44
to our past and present.
05:46
But they also hold a secret for our future,
05:49
a future where we need to adapt
05:52
to an increasingly challenging world
05:54
through greater creativity
05:57
and greater cooperation.
05:59
The secret is that play is the key
06:01
to these capacities.
06:04
In other words,
06:06
play is our adaptive wildcard.
06:08
In order to adapt successfully
06:10
to a changing world,
06:12
we need to play.
06:14
But will we make the most of our playfulness?
06:18
Play is not frivolous.
06:21
Play's essential.
06:23
For bonobos and humans alike,
06:25
life is not just red in tooth and claw.
06:28
In times when it seems least appropriate to play,
06:31
it might be the times when it is most urgent.
06:34
And so, my fellow primates,
06:38
let us embrace this gift from evolution
06:41
and play together,
06:44
as we rediscover creativity,
06:46
fellowship and wonder.
06:49
Thank you.
06:51
(Applause)
06:53

▲Back to top

About the Speaker:

Isabel Behncke Izquierdo - Primatologist
TED Fellow Isabel Behncke Izquierdo studies the social behavior (and play behavior in particular) of wild bonobos in DR Congo.

Why you should listen

TED Fellow Isabel Behncke Izquierdo writes: I was born and raised in Chile, and was educated in animal behaviour and evolutionary anthropology in Cambridge and Oxford. For my PhD work, I study the social behaviour (and play behaviour in particular) of wild bonobos in DR Congo.

Bonobos are, together with chimpanzees, our living closest relatives; however we know very little about them -- mostly through captive work. In Wamba, a most remote jungle location, I have observed unique aspects of bonobo lives (from imaginary play and laughter to inter-group encounters to accidents and death) that challenge and illuminate our understanding of human evolution. I aim to link the play of adult bonobos to insights on human laughter, joy, creativity and our capacity for wonder and exploration.

 

More profile about the speaker
Isabel Behncke Izquierdo | Speaker | TED.com