A kinder, gentler ape

Identifying the "gene for peace" may not be practical, but we can still learn from the endangered bonobo.

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From children at the zoo to scholars in the laboratory, humans are fascinated by our fellow members of the taxonomic family hominidae, better known as great apes.

No wonder: gorillas, orang-utans, chimpanzees and bonobos are so human-like, in appearance and behaviour, that watching them can almost seem like looking in a mirror.

The journal Nature reported last week that sequencing of bonobo DNA has been completed. The last of the great apes to receive this level of study, bonobos have some very intriguing characteristics. Native to the Congo Basin, they are the least violent of the great apes. Communities are ruled by females. They share food, even with other bonobos they don't know.

That has prompted some pundits to talk about isolating a "gene for peace" from the bonobo. However, the study of behavioural genetics is not nearly so simple.

So it is sad to note that bonobos are an endangered species, mainly because of the activities of homo sapiens - in whom peaceful coexistence has never been the dominant gene.