​Evolutionary Insights in Social Intelligence: How Can We Learn from the Bonobo?​

  • TWCF Number:


  • Project Duration:

    June 1, 2018 - December 31, 2020

  • Core Funding Area:

    Big Questions

  • Priority:

    Diverse Intelligences

  • Region:


  • Amount Awarded:


Director: Mariska Esther Kret

Institution: Leiden University

What can our closest animal relatives teach us about empathy and cooperation?

Social intelligence requires profound emotion processing skills, empathy, and the capability to use social information for socially adaptive behavior. To improve social intelligence, it is essential to understand the underlying concepts, how they link together, and their evolutionary foundations. Expressions of emotion are vital for the communication of feelings and intentions. The accurate recognition of these signals fosters adequate behaviors and strengthens the bond between individuals, subsequently increasing survival chances.

Humans and their closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, are well-adapted to recognize others’ expressions, possibly through facial mimicry, a phenomenon closely linked to empathy. But even though humans naturally empathize with others’ emotions, this does not always result in corresponding behavior. This is painfully illustrated by “the bystander effect,” in which individuals in a group avert their attention when confronted with an injured person or other victim.

Methodology and Outputs This project takes on that challenge by comparing humans’ social intelligence with that of chimpanzees and bonobos. Only one experimental study on emotions has been published hitherto, and few studies on bonobo cognition exist in general. To fill this knowledge gap, this project compares social intelligence among humans, chimpanzees, and bonobos with three objectives:

  • Investigate the relationship between empathy, mimicry and emotion recognition;
  • Gain insight into the evolution of cooperative behavior; and
  • Outline the implications and make recommendations for improving ourselves as a species.

The scientific and societal implications of this project will be communicated to the scientific community both through publications in scientific journals and presentations at conferences. I plan to reach general audiences through media distribution and a symposium at a zoo.



Opinions expressed on this page, or any media linked to it, do not necessarily reflect the views of Templeton World Charity Foundation, Inc. Templeton World Charity Foundation, Inc. does not control the content of external links.