A Bonobo for President?

Posted by Mike

What if something happened to cause all human life to be extinguished on earth and yet have no other life impacted? What we would have is the earth, populated by all of the existent plants and animals, with the remnants of human life, our constructions and our discards, which would likely fairly quickly be covered over with vegetation, obliterating most of the signs of previous human habitation or presence. I wonder how long it would take for another species to develop which would have the intelligence of humans and the ability to manipulate the environment that we possess. Would it look like us and think and talk like us? And what current species would it develop from? What would be required for it to develop and acquire the characteristics we are talking about?

It seems reasonable to assume that it would be from one of the current other primates from which the new “humans” would develop. I would vote for either the bonobos or chimpanzees. Bonobo-Head.jpgI don’t know which are seen as “smarter” presently. The intelligence of both species has been studied and both bonobos and chimpanzees have been trained to learn complex patterns and to respond to human language and to communicate using geometric symbols. Although it is clearly not well confirmed, in general bonobos are seen as more peaceful and less aggressive than chimpanzees. It should be noted, however, that the two species are very closely related; the bonobos having developed from an isolated population of chimpanzees. Chimpanzees tend to knuckle-walk virtually all of the time (notwithstanding what you may have seen in a Tarzan movie); bonobos are reported to walk upright more frequently, which is related to their anatomical structure that is more adapted to upright walking. The one bonobo I noted walking recently at our local zoo knuckle-walked exclusively, but moved along at a rapid pace.

It is reasonable to select either of these primates as the one to replace us as future profound manipulators of their environment, not because they look a lot like us (I hope), but rather because they are already quite a way along the path needed in terms of intelligence and functional ability. It would take, however, multiple gradual changes in environmental demands for the species to make the modifications necessary to replace us. If a species remains in a consistently stable environment, genetic, structural and functional changes occur slowly and relatively randomly. If new  and constantly changing, but gradual, environmental demands are placed upon the species, changes are likely to occur more quickly and will be in the direction of increased functionality within the changed environment. Changing environmental demands, if they occur at a reasonable pace, along with the presence of extremely varied demands, result in complex adaptive changes in a species, enabling a wider scope of environmental contingencies that it is able to cope with.

I’ll vote for the bonobos; it’s a purely subjective leaning. The ones I saw the other day looked very happy despite being in a zoological prison. So how long would it take for the bonobos to ramp up to our intelligence: a million years; five million; a hundred million; longer? Wikipedia reports that our common ancestor separated from the apes sometime between 4 and 8 million years ago. If we attained our present level of functioning in perhaps 4 million years from that separation point, maybe it is reasonable to suggest that, given the environmental conditions discussed earlier, in 4,002,010 AD we could have a bonobo as President. But I’d go for a half million years; we don’t seem to be that much smarter than bonobos, even now.

Bonobo distribution.PNGBonobo  habitat


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