Sunday, June 27, 2010

What Altruism in Animals can Teach Us About Ourselves

In spite of everything, I still believe that people really are good at heart – Anne Frank

In an article entitled “Human Morality: Innate or Learned” Rebekah Richards writes, “Morality, integrity, generosity, honor – these are concepts our society esteems, rewards, and expects. They are principles embodied by our cultural heroes, and values which we strive to develop in our children. But where do these qualities originate? Are we taught to be good, or do we possess innate virtue? Are we condemned to a constant battle against our ‘lower nature’?”

Richards cites scientists and philosophers from the fifth century to the present day (all male, I might add; like Augustine of Hippo, Michal de Montaigne, Thomas Henry Huxley to name a few) who had in common the notion that humankind’s goodness was just a veneer over a morality that was rotten and self-serving at its core. Some suggest that no act of “unsolicited pro-sociality” (“other-regarding preferences”) can be characterized as wholly unselfish. There is always something to be gained from the act, they insist, even if it is only to “feel good”.

At the other end of the spectrum of a similar prejudice, some anthropologists argue that morality and true altruism are qualities limited to humans as a result of learned behavior and cultural ethics. The inference here is that those qualities we may share with animals other than humans are base and those we do not share with them are elevated.

Other scientists argue for an alternative to anthropocentric hubris. They argue that altruism is an ancient impulse and an empathic instinct; something more primitive than culture and, in fact, considerably more ancient than the human species itself. They posit that altruism is deeply innate, predating the phylogentic split that occurred six million years ago. According to them selflessness is as natural as appetite.

It was the grace of altruism that allowed it all to happen in the first place.

It started with nineteenth century scientist Edward Westermarck who argued that morality involved both humans and non-human animals and both culture and evolution (de Waal 2006). Of course, he was met with much skepticism. In 1999 zoologist Brenda Bradley wrote, “Altruism is difficult to explain within traditional models of natural selection, which predict that individuals should exhibit behavioral traits adapted to promoting genetic self-interest”. She has a point; so why limit ourselves to a traditional model then? See my article on microbiologist Lynn Margulis, who explored a nontraditional paradigm based on cooperation.

Scientists have been demonstrating for years that cooperation among organisms and communities and the act of pure altruism (not reciprocal altruism or kin/group selection) is, in fact, more common in Nature than most of us realize.

Decades of experimentation suggest moral or altruistic qualities in non-human primates, and also provide support for the idea that human morality is innate. A 1964 study found that rhesus monkeys who could pull on a chain to acquire food would refuse to pull for days if doing so delivered a shock to another monkey; they were “literally starving themselves to avoid inflicting pain upon another” (de Waal 2006).

Chimpanzees, unable to swim, have drowned attempting to save the lives of their companions (Goodall 1990). Human children as young as just over one year old were observed comforting others; household pets also demonstrated a response to distress by attempting to comfort people (de Waal 2006).

However, some researchers in recent lab studies with chimpanzees, suggested a potential absence of “other-regarding preferences” in test animals and concluded that this confirmed that such preferences are limited to humans, who alone are sophisticated enough for cultural learning, theory of mind, perspective taking and moral judgment to convince them to perform an altruistic act.

It is my opinion that these primate studies, which based their measures of “altruism” on food allocation, may have failed to demonstrate altruism due to the measure, compounded with the laboratory setting. Animals will not behave the same in their natural habitat as in a laboratory; their priorities will be different. I found it interesting that true altruism was demonstrated in life-threatening scenarios over less life-threatening ones, such as the experiments conducted in the lab by various anthropologists using food exchange. My opinion is corroborated by scientists, Keith Jensen and Felix Warneken, who concede that the distinction between food exchange and instrumental helping is a potentially crucial one.

Valid examples of true altruism in the wild in other species of the animal world do exist. The Vervet monkey is one example. This species has evolved a complex community that fosters the existence of an altruistic individual: the crier monkey.

Vervet monkeys give alarm calls to warn fellow monkeys of the presence of predators, even though by doing so they attract attention to themselves and increase their chance of being attacked. Biologists argue that the group that contains a high proportion of alarm-calling monkeys will have a survival advantage over a group containing a lower proportion, thereby encouraging this trait to continue and evolve among individuals. The Vervet monkey crier is Nature’s Hero. And Nature’s heroes are our real altruists.

de Waal explains that “evolution favors animals that assist each other if by doing so they achieve long-term benefits of greater value than the benefits derived from going it alone and competing with others” (de Waal 2006). The prevalent phenomenon of altruism is Nature’s answer to the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

“Empathy evolved in animals as the main ... mechanism for [individually] directed altruism," said deWaal. And it is empathy—not self-interest—that “causes altruism to be dispensed in accordance with predictions from kin selection and reciprocal altruism theory.” deWaal further proposed that the scientific community has become polarized between evolutionary biologists on the one side, and, on the other, a discrete group of economists and anthropologists that “has invested heavily in the idea of strong reciprocity,” which demands discontinuity between humans and all other animals.

“One of the most striking consequences of the study of animal behavior,” says anthropologist Robert Sapolsky, “is the rethinking that it often forces of what it is to be human.” He notes that “a number of realms, traditionally thought to define our humanity, have now been shown to be shared, at least partially, with nonhuman species” (Sapolsky 2006). This makes some of us uncomfortable. To some, it threatens to make us less special. The corollary is that this demonstrates that we possess intrinsic virtue, not something “painted” on through cultural teaching or diligent personal effort. Of course, it also means that all other beings possess intrinsic value too. In the final analysis, what we generally “know” is colored by what we believe and want to continue believing.

Harvard philosopher Christine Korsgaard reminds us that, “We eat nonhuman animals, wear them, perform painful experiments on them, hold them captive for purposes of our own – sometimes in unhealthy conditions – we make them work, and we kill them at will” (de Waal 2006).

The growing knowledge and eventual acceptance that animals and very young children possess truly altruistic behavior will have deep implications on how we interact with and treat each other, our animal world and Nature generally. Which brings me to ecology and its importance in our daily lives.

We have so separated ourselves from our environment that we no longer know how—or, more importantly, are not inclined—to interact with it. Separation from something that we are a part of creates a disconnect that makes it hard for us to respect or care for. This is what is at the root of altruism: intimacy and a sense of familiarity and identity that fosters empathy and nurtures compassion. Ecology provides an understanding of our natural world that will help us to respect it and everything that is a part of it, ourselves included.

p.s. This link provides a good example of an altruistic act by a "predator" toward a creature obviously not its "kin". Tell me what you think:

Bradley, Brenda. 1999 "Levels of Selection, Altruism, and Primate Behavior." The Quarterly Review of Biology 74(2):171-194.
De Waal, Frans, with Robert Wright, Christine Korsgaard, Philip Kitcher, and Peter Singer. 2006 Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Goodall, Jane. 1990 Through A Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Sapolsky, Robert M. 2006 "Social Cultures Among Nonhuman Primates." Current Anthropology 47(4):641-656.
Warneken, F. & Tomasello, M. 2006. “Altruistic Helping In Human Infants and Young Chimpanzees.” Science, 311, 1301–1303.
Warneken, F., Hare, B., Melis, A. P., Hanus, D. & Tomasello, M. 2007. “ Spontaneous Altruism By Chimpanzees and Young Children.” PloS Biology, 5(7), e184.
de Waal, F. B. M. 2008. “Putting the Altruism Back Into Altruism: The Evolution of Empathy.” Annu. Rev. Psychol., 59, 279–300.
de Waal, F. B. M., Leimgruber, K. & Greenberg, A. R. 2008. “Giving Is Self-rewarding for Monkeys.” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., USA. 105, 13685–13689.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

Altruism in animals is essentially base nature, what they will do, because they are made to do these things. One breed of animal is not all the same.Does this transfer to humans? What is a human's base nature? It is so wide, from a gentle person to a serial killer.

Nina Munteanu said...

Ah, that is the $64+ question, isn't it? There is so much else involved here, particularly with humans but any zoologist will tell you so too with most social animals; and that is that the socializing aspect, the environment and other factors strongly influence the outcome of an individual's behavior, whether they realize their potential or not. What would Hitler have been like if his childhood and later experiences had been different?

Ok, I'm going to step out here and say that there is no doubt in my mind that altruism (true altruism) is not confined to humanity. I believe that all life forms have the capacity for altruism--what is wanting is our ability to perceive it and measure it and, in many cases, to accept it.

And until we do accept it and embrace all that it means--scientifically or not--I truly believe that our future on this planet is severely limited. We will continue the spiral of isolation from and disrespect of Nature (ironically translates to self-disrespect); we will miss the important signs Nature has been giving us; we will miss the chance to evolve and embark on a new era of synergistic cooperation.

kaslkaos said...

Much of what we fancy is 'human nature' is part of a continuum. Human's are a unique species as are cats, mice, dolphins. Yes, we are different but much the same. We use words, in our heads, and on paper to define and elaborate on things we already feel and do, so 'altruism' sounds like something uniquely human but the impulse is there in lesser and greater amounts. What can it teach us? It teaches us that we are a part of nature, not above it, or even below. We have really big brains, though, and ought to put that capacity to some collectively altruistic work.

Nina Munteanu said...

Well said, Kaslkaos. Eloquently, in fact. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article although I am not a "believer". There is a considerable wealth of scientific data that refutes your basic premise. Selfishness is the rule in animal societies as cheater alleles are strongly selected for by natural selection and drive altruism to extinction. There are cases of "altruism" but most are restricted to helping your on kin or helping yourself one way or the other (hence not true altruism)

Nina Munteanu said...

Thanks for your comments. However, I disagree with your assessment. You suggest that selfishness is the rule in nature. Is this based on scientific evidence or human interpretation? The wealth of information that you suggest refutes altruism may not be what you think it is... just as the conclusions of several studies that suggest that animals practice only limited (reciprocal or kin) altruism...

I write more on this topic here: