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Bonobos Really Know How To Do It: Isabel Izquierdo on Play and Creativity

“Play is our adaptive wildcard. Play is essential. Play is the glue that binds us together.”

Humans share a common ancestor with chimpanzees and bonobos from about six million years ago. They’re our closest ancestors. We’ve made a lot out of the aggressive tendencies of the male-dominated chimps world, but not nearly as much with “the other side of the coin.” Living in the depths of the Congo–and therefore harder to study–Bonobos are all about empowered females. They’re a highly tolerant society in which violence has never been observed.

Primatologist and Ted Fellow, Isabel Behncke Izquierdo, shows how bonobo ape society learns from constantly playing–solo, with friends, even as a prelude to sex. Indeed, play appears to be the bonobos’ key to problem-solving and avoiding conflict. If it works for our close cousins, why not for us?

Patrick Bateson and Paul Martin have written a fascinating book on the subject of play and creativity, which includes studies of animal behavior just like the bonobos and what we can learn from them in Play, Playfulness, Creativity and InnovationTheir discussion sheds new light on the links between creativity and innovation, distinguishing between the generation of novel behavior and ideas on the one hand, and the implementation of these novelties on the other.

We know bonobos as the “make love, not war” apes. And while sex is certainly an interesting way to overcome tensions, the biggest takeaway that Izquierdo sees from her ethnography of bonobos is how essential play is for building and maintaing trust, and for breaking free from stress and uncertainty and into higher creativity.

When you watch bonobo play, you’re witnessing the very roots of human laughter, dance, and ritual.”

Much like what Ken Robinson says about how our education system needs to embrace creativity and not, in fact, do the opposite, which is to stigmatize it and make us constantly afraid of making mistakes, Izquierdo is using her own research to foster play. Below she discusses this idea from a snippet taken from a new PBS series calling Now Playing.

Play is the state where uncertainty is fun. You learn to tolerate uncertainty. You learn to explore possibilities.”

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