I’m in the midst of studying altruism, as you may have noticed by how often I return to this subject, and I am fascinated by the argument raging among biologists about the meaning of so-called altruistic acts in the animal kingdom.
Most scientists believe there is no such thing as true kindness in the animal kingdom. As Richard Dawkins once remarked, “Only human beings make the error of altruism.”
According to this mindset, human beings carry out unselfish acts only out of misguided emotion, such as guilt, and animals only demonstrate altruistic behavior when caring for their young, or when living in a large pack or herd.
As some of our correspondents noted with my ‘bee blog’, many scientists have convinced themselves that what appears to be altruism in the animal kingdom is a variation on what they term ‘kin selection’.
Acts of self-sacrifice – that is, doing something good for someone else at your own detriment – only occurs because of genetic favoritism.
This theory, primarily promoted by W. D. Hamilton in the 1960s, explains this behavior from the perspective of the gene and its need to replicate. The gene that promotes the desire to help other family members aids its own replication because it will help the spread of individuals bearing copies of that gene.
In other words, birds will feed the young of relatives in order to increase the number of their shared genes in future generation.
The other face of this theory is the ‘helper’ idea –that an animal that offers itself as a helper increases its own chances of survival and future reproduction or ensures the survival of the family.
For instance, the white-fronted African bee eater will fight snakes and other predators, forage for food for its relatives and put off having its own young to help its close relatives raise their own young.
Helping is also a means of propagating the gene.
Finally, there is the ‘I’ll-scratch-your-back theory’: a chimp will groom another chimp only because he’s fully expecting reciprocity.
This seemed a neat and tidy theory encapsulating virtually all of the altruism seen in the animal kingdom – from grooming, and vigilance, to babysitting and cooperative hunting.
And then along came the baby chimp study.
In this study, carried out in 2006, Felix Warneken, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, decided to design an experiment to test altruism with no expectation of reward and no intended evolutionary advantage, among both chimps and 18-month-old babies,
Monkey see, monkey do
In the study, Warneken asked a researcher unknown to both chimps and babies to place a wooden stick or a pen beyond his own reach, but not that of the chimps or toddlers.
Warneken then tried four different types of tests with each individual chimp or baby. Sometimes the stranger would simply reach for the stick or pen, and other times he’d just look at it. In a portion of those instances, he’d offer a reward of a banana (for the chimps) or a toy (for the toddlers) if they’d helped him get the object in question.
The hypothesis, said Warneken, was that if the toddlers and chimps were more responsive to the stranger’s goal (getting the stick or pen), they’d be more likely to hand the pen to him when he reached for it than when he just looked for it.
If they were mostly interested in their own benefit in the situation, they’d be most likely to reach for the pen or stick when they knew they were going to get a reward.
The expectation, according to current biological theory, was that the toddler or chimp would be more likely to help if there was something in it for him or her.
The experimental results confounded that theory. Twelve of the 18 chimps and 16 of the 18 toddlers reached for the stick and handed it to the stranger, when he reached for it — regardless of whether they were given a reward.
“This indicates that subjects were motivated to help the experimenter with his/her unachieved goal . . . but did not aim at retrieving a material reward for themselves,” the scientists noted with interest in their report.
“Rewarding their helping was unnecessary,” they added, “and did not even raise the rate of helping in either case.”
Then Warneken and his colleagues raised the stakes. They placed the stick in a more out-of-the-way spot. In order to retrieve it, the participants had to engage in Herculean acts: in the case of chimps, run along an elevated “raceway” or, in the case of the toddlers, scramble over a blockade barrier.
Nevertheless, in this instance, both groups demonstrated a selfless desire to help.
There could be the possibility that the animals and babies were simply trying to please a more dominant individual (i.e., an adult human). So the German scientists decided to test whether chimps would put themselves out for other chimps. Other studies testing this impulse had been inconclusive; sometimes the test chimps helped, other times they didn’t.
They weren’t conclusively spiteful (that is, deliberately keeping the other chimps from getting the food), just not conclusively interested in helping. In the past, the primary concern always seemed to be whether they could get hold of the food for themselves.
So, in this study, the scientists removed the personal reward possibility, by setting up a situation with food inside a room with the door chained shut. The test chimps could see this and were also able to witness a stranger chimp trying to get the door open without success.
An extraordinary 89 per cent of the time, the chimps tried to help them out – even though there was nothing in it for them.
Favoring the weakling
Other evidence, from the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies at the University of Cambridge, suggests that animal bonds are not always made for personal advantage.
In this study they were examining affiliations with third-party members after a conflict between two members of a group.
They discovered in many instances, as expected, that the third party would affiliate himself with the tough-guy, more aggressive individual, and thereby protect himself from a future run-in with him.
However, in other instances, the third-party would side with the 98-pound weakling in the conflict, rather than the bully, particularly if it were his own kin.
So if chimps are happy to help without reward or side with the loser – which would suggest an individual who was naturally less fit – doesn’t this make a monkey out of current arguments about altruism?