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Making a monkey out of science

On April 17th, 2009

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. 

Genetic favorites
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.

Back scratching
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.

Helpful babies
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.

Selfless chimps
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? 

Bee Blog

 

Comments

comments

0 responses to “Making a monkey out of science”

  1. Mark Crable says:

    Lynn,
    Interesting topic you've chosen, and I do believe that you are right. There is altruism in the world. Humans exhibit it - and not by mistake. It extends beyond humans, too, to animals. That's why some dogs, cats, etc. are forelorn when they lose an animal friend. They feel for each other and try to help one another.

    I'm curious - we've never ever seen a response to any of the intentions that you've put forth. Have you ever heard any news - positive or negative from those for whom we put out positive vibration?

    Thanks!

  2. Jean Mackenzie says:

    This result does not surprise me at all. I sincerely believe that to help another is our inherent nature and we learn to become more "selfish" because of the way in which our societies operate and are so competitive.

  3. Helge Sundar says:

    Thanks Lynne, as always you are bringing interesting subjects to the forefront. I have no doubt that there is a principal of Love, combined with intelligence, behind what is termed creation, Gods creation. To degrade animals, seems to be an engraved human habit. In the final analysis a piece rock is both loving and intelligent, and have an altruistic nature. For God is the great altruist, there is nothing not part of his creation, and ceratinly animals with abillities often outperming hamans, beyond what is comprehensive for those "frogs" living in a well (left side of the brain). Wat do they know about the oceans. They even deny their existence.

  4. Hector Parra says:

    All is life..Life is all..We are all connected by this beautiful life force seein life in all allows us to see life in ourself's ..caring for life is a manifestation of this because we are caring for ourselve's..
    We are all messengers to this wonderful truth how we respond to it does not affected at all it's still beautiful...Life..enjoy
    Hector

  5. marilyn says:

    Hi Lynn: These experiments are very interesting but they do not take in the individual's response to another specific individual. I participated in an exercise where we sat down facing many strangers for a brief period of time and looked at each other without speaking during the short time. Our responses to each of these people was entirely different. I specifically remember one man I faced where I could not look at him without laughing hysterically and he was just a normal looking guy. No reason I could think of for that reaction. Past lives? I just don't know. I have also felt fear at a face seen on television. This is a strange reaction for me. I normally just get along well with everyone.

    Marilyn

  6. Jan says:

    You must all have seen this one surely, but as no-one mentioned it I thought I would.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F0xRrtS-_Wk&NR=1

  7. Jane says:

    Anyone who doubts that animals can display kindness should watch the documentary "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill".

  8. KC says:

    Hello everyone and thank you Lynne. 🙂
    According to my compassion experiments, giving attention, empathy and care to others and ourselves enhances love and love’s correlates like happiness and health. This compassion effect seems to be independent of givers’ altruism and selfishness, as well as receivers’ suffering and well-being. It is as if the Universe wants more love and we choose to create it like compassion generators. My new operational definition of compassion is new and incremental love.

    KC Blair

  9. James Milton says:

    My view on this is that our divine part or 'higher' self prompts us to altruistic acts. Regarding animals, have there not been incidents where dolphins have saved humans from drowning? That surely must fall into the altruistic catagory. What about when an animal will fight to the death to defend it's young?

  10. Eric Peterson says:

    Thanks Lynne for continuing to speak up about what needs to be talked about. I am a animal and human lover and there is not doubt in my mind that altruism is a part of the loving creation. I think the real question is "Do these critics have a heart?" I feel for them and anyone that has such a sterile view on the miracle of life.

    Keep up the great work!

    Peace to you all

  11. Henry Niese says:

    Altruism is a form of generosity. Among Native American nations, generosity is still one of the main virtues. It was much stronger in pre-reservation days, but still today, the virtuous person is the generous person. Altruism is still alive in Native America, but waning, probably due to the influence of the dominant culture.

  12. Robin Turner says:

    There is nothing in altruism to contradict evolutionary theory as such, only some theories held by some evolutionary scientists. Peter Kropotkin documented cooperation and altruism in the animal kingdom over a century ago in his work Mutual Aid: a Factor of Evolution. Contrary to the "red in tooth and claw" view of Nature, survival of the fittest often means survival of the nicest.

  13. Patricia Warfel says:

    I highly recommend the book "When Elephants Weep" by Jeffrey Moussaief Masson for a well-researched and thoughtful book on non-human animal emotions, altruism, etc. He tackles and lays bare the "scientific" mindset that non-human animals are merely genetically programmed robots.

    Surely people have heard of, or personally witnessed, the stories of dogs adopting and nursing kittens or squirrels, pigs adopting puppies, etc. Stories even make the evening news about dogs that drape their bodies over their human guardian's bodies who have become incapacitated or unconscious, in an apparent attempt to warm and protect them from the elements, ultimately saving their lives until help arrives.

    I do wonder more about the minds and hearts of those who continually seek to maintain a clear distinction and separation of humans from other animals, repeatedly elevating our status as superior beings on all counts. We refer to certain of our species as "animals" when they commit heinous acts of violence, yet fail to recognize that violence is a part of our nature as well, which can be a part of survival. Why can we not also identify and reconcile our loving, nurturing and compassionate natures with other animals as well?

  14. Ivan says:

    Anybody who is in touch with themselves knows the truth here... I remember watching some news footage of a hippo rescuing an impala that was being attacked by a croc at a waterhole. The beast charged into the water mauling the croc and seeing it off. It then nudged the impala out of the water next to the waters edge - just another day in Africa right?. Yeah, it never prepared me for what happened next. The Hippo lifted the head of the dying gazelle in it's jaw and cradled it in an attempt to revive the animal. If someone told me about this spectacle I would probably have just gone oh, that's amazing, and not give it another thought. Let alone consider any concept of altruism, but watching this act was a life altering experience for me. It completely defied the 'laws' of the jungle. If an animal can respond to another on this level under these circumstances, God knows what we must be capable of as human beings.
    Cheers Lynne great blog!

  15. marilyn says:

    Scientists appear to require huge numbers before they are able to believe in anything. In evolution each individual has his own trip. Compassion is a sign of a highly evolved individual, human or animal. We are all on the same road just at different places along the road. we all have the same destination and that is enlightenment.

    Altruism exists even if it only existed in only one individual no matter what scientists say. Sometimes all that "knowledge" gets in the way of seeing the truth.

  16. Crows, also, show altruism. Check out the work of Bernd Heinrich, particularly "Ravens in Winter." Frans De Waal has written extensively about pro-social behavior in primates. I don't think the statement "Most scientists believe there is no such thing as true kindness in the animal kingdom" is correct, given the number of scientists who have been looking at this over the years.

  17. carolyn says:

    In a time when we're surrounded by bad news, and worse news, focusing on the positive, the good and the loving seems like one of the smartest things we can do with out intentionality.

  18. Lynne says:

    From the "Bee Blog"" " Copious evidence in neuroscience and biology demonstrates that a drive for cooperation and partnership, even sacrifice, rather than selfishness and naked survival, is fundamental to the biological makeup of all living things. Far from being born to be “robot survival machines” shaped by the survival imperative of their genes, both animals and human beings are hardwired for empathy and altruism."

    I believe this is true. The Enneagram talks about the 3 drives - self preservation, social and sexual. If the human animal has these drives, so do the rest of the animals on the planet. The social instinct is necessary not only for survival of a species, but for the survival of all life. It therefore seems to me that all living, breathing life forms would be subject to the same drives. And we humans are arrogant to think otherwise.

  19. Lynne says:

    Patricia, I'm afraid to read the book When Elephants Weep - I'm afraid it will rip my heart out.
    I saw a special on TV once when a man who had taught a gorilla sign language, returned to visit the gorilla several years later. Although the gorilla had no one to sign with for years, he immediately recognized the man, and they conversed happily in sign language for some time. When the man indicated he was leaving, you could just see the heart go out of the gorilla - it was so very, very sad.

    Man seems to be the cruelest animal of all in many ways - we need to wake up.

  20. Beth says:

    I'm looking forward to reading/watching all the resources that others have posted here. Cognitive Ethologist Marc Bekoff's work is also fantastic - He just released 'Wild Justice' in which he writes about the empathy of many species of animals.

    Also, check out the latest work of Dr. Michael Fox , 'Dog Body, Dog Mind' - fascinating reading, especially about what he calls the 'empathosphere' that dogs tap into in order to read our thoughts and intentions.

    I'm a fan of your writing and have given your book and CDs as gifts. Just found the blog, though!

    Thank you!

    Beth

  21. Just browsing to see where my term empathosphere is going---must check up on panempathy next!

    I am afraid that on our current evolutionary divergence, Homo technos is crushing Homo not -so -sapiens under the juggernaught of 'progress'. In the Hopi prophecies this is the Purification, while in Vedanta the reality of Homo technos, and the Juggernaught, are all maya, illusion.

    One truly sapient and panempathic soul-mate Thomas Berry passed on recently. Many will find his earlier book The Deam of the Earth affirming and inspiring.
    My own book The Boundless Circle: Caring for Creatures & Creation, published by Quest Books, fills some gaps, bringing in aboriginal world-views that lead me to the reality of the empathosphere and of our unrealized powers arising from empathy, campassion and reverence for all life.

    As Teilhard de Chardin wrote, 'All paths that rise, converge'. So onward and upward!

    Michael
    '

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