Bonobos, Chimps, and Humans

Today’s class and lecture started with a comparison of chimpanzees and bonobos to humans – I highlighted how bonobos and chimps are different from humans and how they are similar, covering brain size, sociality and vocalizations, group size, habitual vs obligate bipedality, brown vs. white iris’, and permanent pair bonding.  These comparisons were just to demonstrate obvious physical and social differences between the three and to set up our reading by Kay Prufer and colleagues, which is a genome based study on the genomes of all three species.

I used this opportunity to also talk to my students about “how to read an academic article”, so today’s class served two purposes, pedagogical as well as didactic. I walked my students how I choose to read through articles, pointing out that there are many different ways to do it.
Here’s my advice –

  1. start with the abstract
  2. figure out the big question
  3. annotate the background section to figure out “why its important” to ask the “big question”.
  4. note any specific hypotheses and tests
  5. do the results match the question(s)
  6. do the figures help the article tell a story? (I tend to skim the figures early on as well) do the figures contradict or support the text?

Prufer et al. point out some amazing findings from their work and post challenging questions, including “what did our last common ancestor (of chimps, bonobos, and humans) look like? what features did they possess?  and which traits are characteristic of bonobos vs. chimps?” This was a tough article for early undergraduate students but I purposely chose a tough one so that they would learn to read through challenging material and find a strategy for making meaning out of complicated scientific jargon.

Finally, I ended with a think/pair/share exercise that asked students to think of themselves as scientists – if they were studying primates and humans, what would they study, and how would they do it?

-some students wanted to study anxiety responses in chimps/bonobos/humans and compare how anxiety was experienced

– another wanted to study differential child rearing practices

– another asked about tool use among primates and early hominins and early humans

– and another wanted to study cognition and differences in logic responses

I think this exercise really got them thinking about how the study of primates benefits human societies, so I’m happy with how it went…


And then I ended with a short video..


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