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.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Karma of House and Dog-Sitting in Mahone Bay: the Toulouse way

Some of you might know that I offered to house-sit for some friends who have a house right by the water in Mahone Bay, a lovely sea-side resort town in Nova Scotia. The house came with a young cocker spaniel-poodle (cockapoo) puppy, Oli (short for Oliver). I thought, “Oh, Boy!”... Walks along the beach, playing fetch and rough-play (like I wouldn’t do with a cat…) Toulouse wasn’t so enamored. He agreed …though with some reserve (he’s a great sport!).

What neither of us realized was that Oli was about to change our lives…

Mahone Bay is a very charming and cheerful village along the water in a protected bay (from which it gets its name—go figure… knowledgeable smile). Oli’s house was located right on Main Street in the midst of colorful shops, cafés with al fresco dining and convenient amenities. I had the best of both worlds: the mild resort-style bustle out my front door and a back balcony that faced the scenic bay to the sound of clinking boat masts and the gentle ocean surf.

We soon found a routine that suited Oli and me: of walks in the town, meeting the colorful locals on the street, stopping for café crème (well, close to it, Toulouse would say) at Eli’s Café then a wonderful homemade lunch of soup and scone at the Biscuit Eater or Joanne’s Café, and a final walk in the forest and run on the local beach.

Toulouse really liked that part because Oli came back all pooped and would go lie down while Toulouse and I sipped Lillet and wrote on the computer (What? You didn’t know he could do that? How do you think he writes his blog, Toulouse LeTrek, or writes to all his 200+ fans on Facebook or Twitter? He uses his nimble paws, of course. Toulouse is very talented and knows his language better than I—all six, I might add. He’s my editor, after all… ). Sometimes, Oli needed a bit more play before lying down for the evening so he and I would tussle over a doggie bone or one of his decapitated stuffed toys. It gave me some exercise and much entertainment. But should have warned me…

We were just getting into a very groovy routine when Oli did “the ultimate puppy” and decided Toulouse was one of his new stuffed toys. It happened in less than a minute. I’d gone into the kitchen to make some coffee to go with the Lillet and heard Oli crunching on something. It turned out to be Toulouse’s nose! By the time I got to Oli, he’d ripped off Toulouse’s nose! Oli was working on his eye but I snatched my injured friend out of his grasp.

Then karma set in…

After taking Toulouse for major nose surgery and stitches at my good friend, Doctor Hectorine Roy near Liverpool (she’s locally renowned for her excellent quilting and sewing skills), Oli had an accident on the forest path. An old broken bottle found him and sliced the upper pad of his left paw almost off. A friend of Oli’s and I rushed him to a vet who sedated him and gave him stitches then wrapped his paw in a bandage.

As Toulouse recuperated from his operation at Doctor Roy’s with Lillet and café creme, Oli chewed off his bandages and got to his stitches. More karma, Toulouse would say. I took Oli back to the vet to right things, get more bandages, and…yes, you guessed it—to ensure that the bandages stayed on this time—by putting the cone (of shame) on Oli. Well, things weren’t so good for Oli but they were looking up for me. I’ve never laughed so hard in my life (sorry Oli, but you are—like Toulouse—a very good sport too). When I took him for his first walk as “cone-dog”, he invented the “cone-dance”, leaping into the air, twirling in mid-stride, pirouetting, and yelping and howling at this strange thing around his head. He raced backward like a thief only to stumble into something. BONK! Then he would lurch forward and complete his acrobatic show with a sinewy break-dance. I had to bend over, I was laughing so hard.

Oli was soon training to be a shovel, scooping up those questionable things he used to be able to reach before, only to have the item roll out. I thought, “BONUS!” Prior to that I used to spend most of my time convincing him to drop said items (you know, the usual puppy dreck: poo, dirt, decaying bird carcasses, garbage…). Now, I just watched him deal with it. And confess to more than a few chuckles.

On a particularly blustery day, he discovered that the cone acted like a sail, pitching him back and into a dead-halt. He’d rear up and sniff the air then twirl hard and—BONK—right into a telephone pole. Poor git (as Toulouse would say).

Oli was already popular with people because he was…let’s face it… very cute! But now that he was coned, Oli was even more popular with both locals and the international tourists of Mahone Bay, Lunenburg and Bridgewater. Ellen, a local of Mahone Bay, then gave me the best suggestion: why not mark up the cone like a cast? I seized the opportunity and purchased multi-colored markers and started to have some real fun. Toulouse, God bless him, was the first to sign. That was followed by Chris from Las Vegas. It continued on with various locals, people from Dartmouth, Halifax, Lunenburg, Germany, France and places in the United States. It included his good doggie friends, Joy and Fifi, as well as characters from all walks of life from Kenny, the local go-to man, to Stephanie who worked for a vet in Bridgewater.

I don’t know when I quite realized it but Oli had turned into a celebrity. Every day we would get stopped by some stranger on the street with condolences and to sign his now colorful cone. Cars slowed right down and I overheard people saying, “Look! His cone is all signed!”

I suppose one sad side-effect of the cone was that Oli couldn’t reach any other part of his body, not to scratch his ears (which I did for him) or get at his food dish (I hand fed him). He did eventually learn to aim his gear straight down in order to reach all-important items on the ground, earning him the title of “lampshade dog”.

That’s when I discovered the first tick. Engorged, it was the size of my little finger nail, and nestled very comfortably on the back of Oli’s neck. EEK! I frantically searched the internet for the best way to rid him of this nasty disease-carrying pest. One site provided an ingenious way of removing the pest without leaving offensive parts behind (the usual challenge when wrenching the nasty bug off your dear dog). It consisted of putting your finger on the tick (already a challenge for me. Yuck!) and rolling it in circles really fast. Apparently this makes the tick dizzy and after a while it falls off in an apparent stupor. I had to laugh but I just couldn’t do it. I’d be interested if any of you has been successful in this oddly inventive way of ridding an animal of that nasty obnoxious little blood-sucking parasite! I found two more ticks on poor Oli and wondered if they’d managed to lodge there because he could not reach to bite them like he’d bitten off Toulouse’s nose…

Ah well, that’s karma for you…

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.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Events That Will Change Everything: To Clone or not to Clone

…Ah, but man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?—Robert Browning

In the June 2010 issue of Scientific American, an article called “12 Events that will Change Everything” discusses the likelihood by 2050 of naturally occurring and human-made events that may dramatically change our world and how we perceive it and ourselves. Authors ranked each event on a scale from “very unlikely” to “almost certain”. Events spanned from the wondrous and “less likely” discovery of extra dimensions and first encounter with alien intelligence (Hey! Isn’t that ME? Big grin) to the “more likely” possibility of machine self-awareness, the polar meltdown and the “almost certain” 7.8 magnitude pacific earthquake (Better move to high ground, Margaret!).

The cloning of a human was rated “likely” and creation of life “almost certain”.

In a post entitled “Designer Organisms Promise New Life…at What Cost?” I discussed how researchers in the emerging field of synthetic biology (called synbio) envision microbes customized with artificial genes to let them turn sunlight into fuel, clean up industrial waste or monitor patients for the first signs of disease. Ways to combat global warming include a new species of bacteria that can break down cellulose to produce ethanol or soak up carbon dioxide.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Darwin and Lemarck on Soft Inheritance

Evolution is the language of destiny. What is destiny, after all, but self-actualization? Walking the path that we—or something “greater” than us has blazed for us? What is evolution and through what mechanism do we evolve? If evolution is the language of destiny, then choice and selection are the words of evolution and “fractal ecology” is its delivery.

What is natural selection, after all? How do we define today a concept that Darwin originated 200 years ago in a time without bio-engineering, nano-technology, chaos theory, quantum mechanics and the internet? We live in an exciting time of complicated change, where science, based on the limitation of traditional biology, is being challenged and stretched by pioneers into areas some might label heretical. Endosymbiosis, synchronicity, autopoiesis, self-organization, morphic resonance, Gaia Hypothesis and planetary intelligence. Some of these might more aptly be described through the language of metaphysics. But should they be so confined? It comes down to language and how we communicate.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Celebrating Womanhood: I am Woman I am Paradox

That which is yielding conquers the strong and the soft overcomes that which is hard--Lao Tse

There is a new woman out there. You can recognize her if you look carefully. She’s the one who blithely embraces the typical man’s world with panache, style and a confidence that may daunt without being hostile. She has no motive in doing this except to be the best she can be. In truth, she exudes the apparently paradoxical qualities of compassion and strength. She looks you directly in the eye, is openly vulnerable, sincerely human, yet ultimately powerful. She may intimidate lesser men.

Such a woman exudes a genuine self-esteem and warmth that is charismatic, and demonstrates quiet competence with humility. She is intelligent without the need to intimidate. She is a natural leader without being selfish or tyrannical. This is ultimately the power of woman: to lead with compassion. She is defining her world; not letting the world define her.