Similarities between chimps and humans

What's the difference between us and our chimpanzee cousins? Researchers studying traits that we share, like altruism and vengeance, and those we don't, like spite and most social learning skills, are shedding light on what it means to be human. The new issue of Smithsonian surveys several of these studies. From the article:
What makes us lucky bipeds human?

"The most important way to ask these really hard questions–is human altruism unique, is human spite unique, is human fairness unique–is to ask non-human animals," says Laurie Santos, director of the Comparative Cognition Laboratory at Yale University. This behavioral process of elimination defines humans as it progresses.

Since chimpanzees can't speak our language, researchers design experimental scenarios to detect the presence or absence of such traits.

Previously on BB:
• Ape altruism Link


  1. I am skeptical that real, true altruism exists in any species. Cooperation is not altruism and many behaviors that people claim to be altruistic on closer examination carry a benefit.

    Natural selection does not operate at the group level.

  2. Noen,

    I read an interesting thought experiment on altruism once. I’m afraid I can’t credit it properly but I believe it is quite well known.

    Imagine 2 persons named John, standing alongside a river. Both of them have a brother Bill, that falls into the river, and cannot swim.

    Now the one John has a gene that makes him care enough about his brother to risk his own life, jump in and save his brother, so he does.
    The other John lacks this gene so he lets his brother drown.

    Now the loving John’s brother Bill is very likely to have the same love gene as his brother, so together, they will have twice as many love gene carrying children as the non-caring John, so after a number of generations, the love gene carrying people will be more numerous than the people without.

  3. Co-operation isn’t the issue here. Altruism has been observed many times in other species, across species lines. Dogs and cats have often independently displayed protective and even nurturing behavior towards other species; for example, bitches allowing kittens or other species to nurse on them is quite common. Wild dolphins frequently rescue human swimmers in distress. There’s lots about this here.

    Dr. Frans de Waal’s book “Good Natured” documents many examples of altruism toward humans by other species, such as the incident about 10 years ago at a zoo in Illinois, where a 3 year-old boy fell 18 feet onto the concrete floor of the gorilla enclosure. A female gorilla carefully picked him up, cradled him and carried the seriously injured boy to a zookeeper. That gorilla, although in a zoo, was wild and had not been socialized with humans.

  4. If you were driving through the desert, and you found a newly-crashed flying saucer whose injured pilot was begging for a few sips of brake fluid plus a little duct tape to repair his/her/its carapace, wouldn’t you do it?

    Life and complexity votes for more of the same.

  5. Natural selection could certainly select for altruism, because natural selection is non-intelligent.

    Let us say there is some gene that makes an individual pre-disposed to act altruistically. When this comes into play, it will cause you to help someone near you, not someone far away from you, so there will be a bias towards helping those you are related to, who are more likely to carry the gene. Even though the gene just makes you help anyone, simple geography makes it favor your kin, so it gets selected for.

    Even a gene that makes me want to help any living thing is going to favor my kin disproportionately.

  6. Twoshort, that only works if you can calibrate the amount of help you give to the degree of relatedness.

    Otherwise, you’re spending energy helping people that could be used for other things. And someone who didn’t have this altruism gene will save their energy while benefiting from your altruism. So kin selection works, but the undiscriminating altruism you described doesn’t.

    Which isn’t to say that altruism doesn’t exist, just that this kind of explanation for it doesn’t work.

  7. Pete, we evolved in social groups, and are probably still doing it. There’s a strong incentive to be cooperative and altruistic.

  8. Noen, I am inclined to agree with you, if we make a distinction between evolutionary altruism, which increases an organisms inclusive fitness in some way, and “true altruism” which I’m assuming you mean would be altruism with no fitness benefit at all. Then I too am sceptical that this “true altruism” is present in humans or other species.
    However, I would like to hear your arguments for natural selection not operating at the group level?

  9. Sweep’s post #9 comes close to my view on this.

    IMHO there are three levels of altruism. In the order of how primitive and primal they are:

    Level One altruism is genetic. Even some species of bacterium have genes that will cause some bacteria in a large group to commit suicide if resources start to run thin. Most animals have genes that trigger behavior for helping one’s family/herd/pack. Groups with such genes tend to last longer and preserve themselves better than groups where each individual hoards resources, does not feel the urge to help a sick/injured relative, etc.

    Level Two altruism is Machiavellian and calculated. Since we are intelligent, we can figure out when “being good” can help us get what we want. We are nice to people who will benefit us. We kiss up to our bosses, are friendly to our neighbors, act nice to important people who have the power to give us opportunities that will help us reach our goals. We network. We contribute to political campaigns. Carl Sagan wrote a great article called “The Rules Of The Game” (Google it!) where the mathematics of game theory show that, in many situations, some amount of cooperation and forgiveness led to better individual success than just being as selfish as you can all the time. He went through a few alterations of the Golden Rule and how they did in those experiments, and in the end “Do unto others as you would have done unto you, unless someone screws you over at which point act selfish towards them, unless they act nice again in which case forgive them and help them again” did the best. (This mathematical demonstration illustrates how natural selection might have come to favor the genes that lead to Level One altruism. The difference here is that now we are intelligent enough to understand the mechanisms and to tweak our own “being nice” characteristics for maximum gain, if we so wish).

    Level Three is the conscience, it’s “true” altruism, it’s feeling bad when you know you caused or helped to cause suffering. To be perfectly honest, I think the conscience coalesces out of rules of thumb we develop as kids to help us automatically do Level Two behavior. It’s conditioning, like Pavlov’s dogs. After observing something like “When we do things that cause people to suffer or that cause people injustice, those people get mad at us” (this is when we are little kids), we form rules of thumb that say “Doing things that cause others to suffer and that cause injustice is BAD”, and our animal-level brain eventually turns this repeated rule of thumb into something like an instinct, into making is actually FEEL BAD when we contemplate doing something that leads to suffering and injustice. The same way that, if you yell at or lightly hit/shock a dog every time he pees in the living room, he will eventually feel bad when he contemplates peeing in the living room, and if he does pee in the living room he will approach you with ears and tail lowered as if saying “I feel I did something bad”. After a childhood of being punished for causing suffering and injustice, we are conditioned to want to avoid that. And, since we are self-aware, we can sense a part of the brain (the angel on the other shoulder) that says “Don’t do it!” or “Help the poor!”, and we call that a conscience. Animals might have a don’t-pee-on-the-carpet circuit in their brain, but they are not self-aware enough to realize it for what it is, and they are not complex enough (nor do we have high enough expectations of them) to be conditioned against all “bad” behavior (like barking late at night, playing in the dirt, etc).

    Sorry about the huge comment. I just finished writing a book about this so it’s all very fresh in my mind… The book is about the atheism-religion debate, and one chapter goes over the above points to show that Richard Dawkins is right when he says “Religious people think that they get their morals from religion, but they don’t. ‘Where do atheist get their morals?’ – From the same place religious people do!”.

  10. Airshowfan, nice post, I would be interested to read your book.
    I find Game Theory particularly interesting as it can show good mathematical demonstrations of how behaviours are beneficial. Think the only problem with tit-for-tat is that it assumes an individual will remember previous encounters with 100% accuracy, which is obviously unlikely.
    Level 3 altruism, as you call it, I like your explanation a lot, and I agree with you, but I would still hesitate to call it “true” altruism, in the sense that it carries no selective advantage to be altruistic, or rather to be inclined to be altruistic in this manner, I think that the development of a Jimminy cricket must have a positive effect on inclusive fitness. I think that it pays to care, in other words!

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