Smart beasts

Lynne McTaggart

Why are we ever kind to each other? In the view of neo-Darwinist Richard Dawkins, only humans make what he refers to as the ‘error’ of true altruism.

“Let us try to teach generosity and altruism,” Dawkins urges us, “because we are born selfish.”

Altruism makes no logical sense, because it is potentially an act of purposeful self-destruction.

In a zero-sum game, it is deliberately choosing the shorter straw.

Evolutionary biologists such as Robert Trivers of Rutgers University in New Jersey goes as far to posit that altruism represents a neural error: “Our brains misfire when presented with a situation to which we have not evolved a response,” he notes.

We’ve evolved our selfish behavior, they maintain, from our relatives in the animal kingdom. In the main, scientists have attempted to shoehorn altruism into current biological theory by reducing unselfishness in animals and humans to a genetic imperative: acts of self-sacrifice that occur only because of genetic favoritism.

Many modern biologists reduce altruism to an equation, measuring its cost or benefit in terms of its bearing on an organism’s number of offspring, or “reproductive fitness.”

According to this view, animals only demonstrate altruistic behavior when caring for their young, or living in a large pack or herd. Otherwise, animals have no capacity for compassion or generosity of spirit.

As Woody Allen put it, ‘The world is one giant cafeteria.’

But animal champions such as Jeffrey Masson have amassed hundreds of astonishing cases demonstrating that animals routinely engage in what Gloria Steinem once referred to as ‘random acts’ of self-sacrifice, compassion, courage and generosity toward members of their own species, members of other species and even toward humans, often to their own detriment.

In innumerable instances, Masson and McCarthy have discovered instances where animals have shared food or ensured that weaker individuals in a pack or herd be fed, even if it means giving up their own food.

Masson recounts the story of Tatu, a mongoose, whose paw had been injured in a fight and so was unable to fight. The other mongooses in her pack began foraging close to her, so that she’d have more food and even gave up some of their daily food to her.

In times of danger, animals routinely rescue members of their own species—often at danger to themselves. For instance, Masson describes a pack of wild dogs that had chased off a herd of zebra and had surrounded a mare, foal and yearling.

They were beginning to attack the mare (to get to their ultimate target, the foal), when some 10 zebras suddenly galloped into the scene, created a protective fence around the three threatened members of their pack, and rushed away with them.

These rescue attempts also occur with unrelated species. Masson tells the story of an elephant who repeatedly attempted to rescue a rhino calf that was stuck in deep mud during the rainy season in Kenya.

The elephant repeatedly attempted a rescue, even at its own expense, since the calf’s mother, misinterpreting the elephant’s interest, charged whenever he got near her offspring.

Some of the most extreme instances of altruism concern examples of animals adopting other, unrelated animals. In one study, notes Masson, African researchers rounded up a batch of young baboons and set them free in foreign territory.

Before long, all the babies had been adopted by the adult male baboons, which lovingly cared for them, exhibiting typical maternal-like behavior.

Most astonishing of all, he says, are the many instances of one species adopting another. In one extraordinary study carried out in the 1930s, a group of researchers presented a mother rat with unrelated rat pup after rat pup. She went on to mother 58 adopted pups in all. The researchers then offered a group of mother rats a smorgasbord of infants: mice, rabbits and kittens.

The mother rats readily adopted the mice. If they were strong enough, they’d drag back the baby rabbits to their cages. They even gamely attempted to nurse the kittens, shoving them repeatedly into position—without success.

The rats even tried to grab a pair of bantam chicks by the scruff of the neck and drag them to their nests, although the chicks became so agitated they had to abandon this particular adoption.

Rupert Sheldrake, author of Dogs That Know When their Owners are Coming Home and Other Unexplained Powers of Animals (Hutchinson), has many hundreds of cases in his database of what can only be described as animal empathy and compassion toward humans, including instinctively knowing that they need comforting, particularly when they are ill.

Cats that are independent and routinely prowl at night will sacrifice their own independence if their owners are sad or unwell.

Sheldrake’s database contains numerous instances where animals have acted as therapists. Chad, a Golden Retriever, routinely visited a hospice in England. He instinctively spent the most time with the patients who are the most ill and will sit with his head on their lap or on the bed.

In one case where the woman was dying, he stood for three hours by her bedside, his head next to hers, until she had passed on.

In a number of Sheldrake’s case studies, animals have prevented their owners from committing suicide. In one instance, a woman living in the North of England with terrible marital troubles decided to overdose on paracetamol.

Although her English Springer Spaniel William had been left sleeping in front of the fire, he suddenly bolted up, jumped in front of her pills and water in hand and started snarling, even baring his teeth.

Frightened by this fearsome aggression, which she’d never seen before in her dog, the woman replaced the bottle and sat down on the sofa, after which William jumped up on her and began frantically licking her face.

One of the most astonishing of Masson’s cases concerns Gilly, a Border Collie. A trained signal dog, she had been adopted by the family to assist the father and had arrived just a few months before the birth of the family’s second child.

The evening of the baby’s first night home, Gilly frantically woke the mother, running back and forth between her bed and the baby’s cot.

When the mother investigated, she discovered that the baby had turned blue and stopped breathing due to mucus clogging his airways. She cleared away the mucus and the baby’s breathing was restored.

What all these case studies demonstrate is a being with an exquisite sensitivity to the sanctity of life and a will to preserve the living—in whatever form it has. This would suggest a sense of humility in the face of the life force that we would do well to learn from.

Although many examples can be found of what appears to us to be senseless cruelty among animals, such instances are hardly on a scale akin to that of what humans do to other humans.

Considering that the structure of our lives—our schooling, our businesses, our societies and countries—are entirely based on I win-you lose competition, it could be argued that animals more often act from a sense of higher purpose than we do.

Not so dumb beasts, are they?

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Lynne McTaggart

Lynne McTaggart is an award-winning journalist and the author of seven books, including the worldwide international bestsellers The Power of Eight, The Field, The Intention Experiment and The Bond, all considered seminal books of the New Science and now translated into some 30 languages.

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2 comments on “Smart beasts”

  1. I suggest reading the book "Civilized to Death, the Price of Progress" by Christopher Ryan. From the books premises Humans are selfish due to civilization and due to much of the progress that has gone with it as well as the onset of agriculture. Pre-civilizied societies were Hunter-Gatherers and they were anything but selfish, a high degree of cooperation and altruism were necessary for our species survival. A recurring theme in the book is "Is life really better than it was before the advent of civilization?" An excellent read and a real eye opener as well
    as very thought provoking.

  2. Beautiful! Thank you for this essay!
    As a biologist, I heard all the Dawkinsian (material realist) arguments - just like ones that tells of consciousness originating in the brain - that just cannot account for anything else, and that biologists are loathe to disagree with, never mind try to dispute or disprove. So, I really appreciate your objective tackling of the science that says otherwise in your books and essays! Thank you!

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