Here’s a report on a paper published recently in PLoS Biology, namely Spontaneous Altruism By Chimpanzees And Young Children, in which it is shown that human children and chimpanzees display similar levels of altruism, a study which has raised questions once more about what makes humans different from all other animals, particularly those to whom were are apparently most genetically related, specifically the chimpanzee.

Felix Warneken and colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology present experimental evidence that chimpanzees act altruistically toward genetically unrelated conspecifics.

In addition, in two comparative experiments, they found that both chimpanzees and human infants helped altruistically regardless of any expectation of reward, even when some effort was required, and even when the recipient was an unfamiliar individual–all features previously thought to be unique to humans.

This has led to conjecture that altruism may go back beyond the implied human/chimp divide, to a common ancestor (not a single trace of which has ever been found). I’m not convinced that altruism, whatever exactly that may be, is the only element at work here; maybe some primates are more geared towards problem solving, with their brains wired for resolving situations, rather than necessarily acting out of kindness to their fellow creatures.

If altruism can be said to exist, it would be interesting to see which, if any other, primates can be prompted into similar behaviours – for example, according to Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz et al, the orangutan shares many more unique features with a human than a chimp, and if this is indeed the case, maybe we should be testing for altruistic behaviour expressed at a similar level to the experiments described above, within that species as well. (TJ)

see also: Reciprocal Altruism

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