NPR logo Lessons From A Bonobo Parent

Lessons From A Bonobo Parent

Here's a follow-up to my 13.7 bonobo series last month, which started here, then here, here and here.

The gist of the series, if you've just tuned in, is that humans and seven bonobo apes are participating in a Pan/Homo co-culture at the Trust in Iowa. The humans include scientists interested in understanding the dynamics of language, and I have had the honor of recently visiting their community.

Below is a video, just posted yesterday, of two of the bonobos at the Trust, filmed by Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh:


Kanzi, age 30, has lived his whole life with humans and bonobos (including his mother), and is famous for his well-developed language skills.

But we see him here as a father, the father of 6-month-old Teco, born at the Trust and being mothered by Dr. Sue.

Kanzi has come to the nursery to pay Teco a visit.

I encourage you to sit back for 3 minutes and take it in. The Trust inserts a few captions, but there are many other responses to be had.

Here's how I responded to the video after seeing the full-length (12-min) version:

Of late, something has "kicked in" that Sue calls Teco's sense of free will. He's now circumspect with unfamiliar humans and bonobos alike, taking time to warm up to them. He's "his own little person," a transformation that typically occurs in human babies at about 9-10 months and occurs in Teco in the context of both his genetic endowment and the Pan/Homo cultural ambience of the Trust.

Kanzi's understanding of this transformation has been recorded by Sue in a video — soon to be posted on YouTube — that I'll try to describe.

Teco comes into a room where Kanzi and Sue are sitting. Sue first asks Kanzi to take off Teco's diaper and he does so deftly, pulling on one plastic strip and then the other. Then, instead of picking Teco up as he would have done pre-free-will, Kanzi moves into a corner, sits down, and watches while the baby scampers about. Whenever Teco comes near, Kanzi reaches out and gently strokes him.

He then tries to engage the baby in little-kid-style games: he strums his fingers on the floor, looking up hopefully to see if that draws attention; when it doesn't, he scoots along the floor pushing a large sheet of paper and Teco runs after it; he then does the same thing with a box. Throughout the clip, Kanzi evinces the heart-warming interest of a new Dad — eager to be accepted, eager for relationship, yet respectful of his son's space and personhood.

Does Kanzi know that Teco is his son? Does Teco think that Sue is his mother? We may never know the answers to these interesting questions that we know how to ask.

So – what does this video say to you about who we are?