Altruism in Chimpanzees

Did you catch this publication, “Spontaneous Altruism by Chimpanzees and Young Children“? It seems like an interesting paper on altruism which is already pretty well established in non-human primates, but fascinating none-the-less.

I don’t feel the need to really be rehashing the traditional and misinformed dogma that only humans are capable of acting altruistically, putting others’ needs before one’s own, and that this is one of those abilities that separates man from other animals. We all know it is wrong, and the recent study I liked above is another nail in the coffin towards thinking humans are only altruistic living things.

This studies focuses on analyzing the degree of altruistic behavior of both chimpanzees and young children. In one test, the chimpanzees or children were confronted with an unfamiliar human adult, who was trying to reach a stick through some bars, but the stick was just out of reach. In some cases the human adult would offer a food reward in exchange for help reaching the stick, but in other cases there was no benefit accrued for helping.

Despite this, both the human infants and the chimpanzees helped out the adult the majority of the times. The next series of tests put a price at helping the adult human; the chimpanzees had to climb up 2.5 meters onto a ledge to help, and the human infants had to get past a series of obstacles. Again, the chimpanzees showed the same degree of altruism as the human infants.

In a final set of experiments, designed to test whether chimpanzees would show altruistic behavior towards members of their own species, the subject chimpanzees were presented with a test where another chimpanzee was trying to get into a chamber containing food. The only way this chimpanzee could get the food was if the subject pulled a chain, opening the door to the chamber. In this case, the subject chimp received no reward at all, other than that hearty sense of self-satisfaction one gets from being a nice guy. As with the other experiments, the subject chimpanzees would help out another individual even if there was no benefit to themselves.

4 thoughts on “Altruism in Chimpanzees

  1. You may be interested to know that the upcoming issue of THE SCIENTIST asks, “Do Chimpanzees Have Culture?” I thought that it was widely accepted that they do, but some will only use the term “learned behavior.”

  2. Hey, thanks Crystal for sharing that information with us. I’m happy to know about it and will track down the article that asks that question.


  3. It seems to me that the only thing proven by the experiments described above has to do with behavior, not with motivation.

    Yet “altruism” has much to do with motivation. It could be that the tested primates were curious (rather than trying to be helpful to the others) and were conducting their own experiments–behavioral and mechanical–while they were supposedly being studied.

    In addition, the researchers assumed that the only “reward” for the primates would be tangibles, such as food, etc. But the desire for other rewards–such as obtaining knowledge, or eliminating environmental stressors, or alleviating boredom–may also have been self oriented (ie: non-altruistic) motivators.

    The assumptions evident in these experiments, and in the conclusions reached, demonstrate again the need for scientists to engage with people in other fields like philosophy and psychology.

  4. Lyone: Altruism is a behavior, (ostensible) self-sacrifice for another, which has been observed even in slime molds.

    Motivations are something else. Whether altruism really exists, or whether it’s merely a specific form of self-interest (e.g. curiosity, feeling of good will, etc.) is a philosophical — but not empirical — question.

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