By John Higgins
Beacon Journal staff writer
Much of the effort to keep bullies from interfering with learning in the classroom focuses on improving children's sense of empathy the innate ability to share another's emotions.
We're accustomed to attributing aggressive behaviors to our distant primate past ''Hey you kids, stop acting like apes!'' But researchers are discovering that our jungle ancestors also bestowed upon us virtues such as cooperation, reconciliation and empathy.
The Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University studies groups of chimpanzees our closest living relatives and other primates to learn more about the deep origins of human behavior.
Humans and chimps share a common ancestor on the evolutionary family tree, but humans diverged from that branch about 5.5 million years ago.
Chimpanzees live in hierarchical societies with high-ranking and low-ranking members. They sometimes fight viciously, especially against outsiders, and even murder each other.
However, they survive by mostly getting along, whether it's cooperating to hunt monkeys or building coalitions to seize power in the group.
That means chimps use a lot of brain power remembering who their friends are, who owes them a favor and who deserves payback for a past betrayal.
Frans de Waal, one of the world's most prominent primate experts who works at Yerkes, became more interested in what chimps did after a fight than during the fight itself.
De Waal discovered that they ''reconcile'' after fights by cleaning parasites out of each other's hair. Grooming is a calming, pleasurable activity that restores social harmony.
''It was really important to signal to all the individuals involved that that episode was over, they could go back to life as usual,'' said Matthew Campbell, a Living Links Postdoctoral Fellow at the primate center who works with de Waal.
Campbell said he has observed instances, however, when the winner of a fight refuses to reconcile with the loser. The loser will slap himself and scream until he finally gets some signal that the fight is over.
''I've seen a male in one of our groups withhold reconciliation a number of times from individuals that wanted to, making them very distressed,'' Campbell said. ''That's the closest thing I can think of to bullying.''
The male appeared to be holding back on purpose, but Campbell said researchers don't know enough about how chimps think to say whether the male could imagine how his behavior would make the other chimp feel.
Human kids don't groom each other, but nonstop texting and Facebook status updates might serve the same social bonding purpose.
''In that sense, whether we bond over touch, text or talk is irrelevant,'' Campbell said.
The kind of ''verbal grooming'' that Facebook makes possible, however, also enables people to gang up on a victim in a new and potentially devastating way.
That's why Merle Bennett Buzzelli, who heads the Akron school district's bullying prevention program, was dispatched to Seiberling elementary school to talk to sixth-graders when Facebook fights began spilling over into the classroom.
She told them that she has a special relationship with the social networking site and can dig into any kid's account if a Facebook fight which mostly happen among girls disrupts learning.
Buzzelli said kids usually are shocked to discover that she can print the record of all the nasty things they've said about each other, regardless of the privacy settings on their accounts.
She looks for the tell-tale signs of bullying as Akron Public Schools defines it: A bully has more power than the victim and causes mental or physical harm repeatedly. It's not the same as a one-time fight on the playground between equals.
''I see very little purpose in young kids your age having free access to Facebook and those things,'' Buzzelli told the sixth-graders. ''All I'm seeing is kids fighting over Facebook.''
Those fights can go on for weeks and the hurtful words don't just vanish in the heat of the moment, they forever taunt the victim online.
Campbell hasn't observed in other species the kind of persistent human bullying that deliberately isolates a child from the group without hope for reconciliation, the kind that sometimes ends in suicide.
''That perpetual fear of aggression, that perpetual lack of safety, that perpetual status as an outcast probably leads to the extreme steps that some of the victims take,'' he said.
''Chimpanzees don't experience that. This individual might withhold reconciliation, but it's on a span of minutes, not forever. Even when there's a fight in the group and someone gets wounded, you don't have to wait very long before they're grooming each other.''
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