I have read another book by Frans de Waal, The Bonobo and the Atheist (previous one, The Age of Empathy, was discussed here on 1/28/15 and more so on 2/25/14). I really admire his work and feel much kinship to his way of thinking. I plan on a couple of comments, today on autobiographical memory and later on altruism. Dr. de Waal is an amazing and pioneering primatologist and his books show his research and his anecdotes show his experience. He challenges anyone who thinks an ape, e.g., chimpanzee, is not conscious or does not have an identity to spend time with a chimp relating face to face and still maintain that prejudice.
One of my favorite stories is about an alpha male bonobo who took care of an elder female who was blind and deaf, leading her outside by day to a favorite sunny spot and inside at night. When she had a seizure, he stayed with her until she recovered. Then one time a veterinarian was handing out vitamins when this male bonobo bit down too hard on her finger, breaking the bone and indeed taking off the end. The bonobo immediately looked like ‘uh-oh’ and released the finger. A few days later the veterinarian visited again and held up her bandaged hand. The bonobo ran to a far corner, hiding his face. The vet a few months later took another job and did not return to the first facility until 15 years later. The old bonobo recognized her in the crowd outside the exhibit right away, ran to the glass greeting her in a positive bonobo manner, and then tried persistently to view her left hand hidden by the exhibit wall that he had bitten years before. Clearly this anecdote provides signs of both agency and autobiographical memory, which I take to be hallmarks of an evolving self.
Now here is a question. The bonobo recognized her and remembered his action, so we are able to infer some contents of his mind. Did he, like we humans so often do, remember her over the years (through recall, not just recognition), appreciating her relationship yet regretting his mistake? Without a richer capacity for symbolic thought and communication, we do not know how he processed and reflected on his experience, but I’ll bet he did. Bonobos are big on reconciliation after a conflict as are most primates, so I am sure we share at least part of this biological root of humanity with him (and them).