Our closest living relatives, bonobos and chimpanzees, along with small-scale human societies figure prominently in debates about human nature. Here we emphasize and explain behavioural variation within and among these three species. In the logic of behavioural ecology, individuals have been selected to adjust their behaviour along evolved reaction norms that maximize fitness given current socio-ecological conditions. We discuss variation in three behavioural contexts: relationships between the sexes, hierarchy and inequality, and intergroup interactions. In each context, behavioural variation can be related to two broad socio-ecological conditions: (i) the defensibility of contested resources, and (ii) differences in bargaining power. When defensibility of resources and differences in bargaining power are great, interactions are rife with conflict; when they are minimal, interactions are more harmonious. These socio-ecological conditions therefore constitute key catalysts and obstacles of cooperation. We conclude that human nature should be seen as consisting of evolved reaction norms.