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TRBQ Podcast #13 — Is There Really Altruism?

If you ever doubt that animals have the capacity to share, look no further than chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys.

Frans de Waal studies primates, and he teaches psychology at Emory University. He says says looking at the way other primates share sheds light on the way humans act.

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“Sometimes in human behavior there’s a tendency to say it’s unique,” he says. “People will say we’re the only ones who really share and the only ones who really care about the wellbeing of others.”

Many cooperative animals, like lions and hyenas, have to share to survive.

“What would be the point of me helping you hunt if I never get anything?” de Waal says. “For cooperative behavior, it’s absolutely essential that there’s some sort of sharing of the payoffs at the end, otherwise the behavior would disappear.”

Although a snarling pack of hyenas around a dead zebra may not look friendly, de Waal says, they’re still sharing. They’re not chasing one another away because they need each other to survive.

Then there are other animals, like chimps and bonobos, that share in a more familiar way.

Frans de Waal studies and teaches primate behavior at Emory University. (Photo: Emory Univ.)

Frans de Waal studies and teaches primate behavior at Emory University. (Photo: Emory Univ.)

“They can even hand things to each other and they have begging gestures,” de Waal says. “Like, you have food and I hold out my hand, an open hand, which is also a universal human begging gesture.”

De Waal says chimpanzees have a sense of fairness. They know if they’ve gotten a raw deal, and they’re unhappy about it. Studies have shown the same thing with human infants and a number of other animals, so it seems the expectation of fairness may be inborn.

De Waal studied this fairness issue first in capuchin monkeys. Two monkeys were given food in exchange for performing a task.

“If you give them the same foods they will keep doing the task forever,” he says.

That changes when you start giving one of the monkeys a better food—grapes, for instance—but continue giving the other one a cucumber.

“Then the one who gets the grapes is perfectly happy,” he says. “But the one who gets cucumber at some point starts refusing and rejecting and objecting and protesting, and even throwing perfectly good food away, because it’s not getting what the other one is getting.”

When de Waal shows audiences video of that experiment, it always gets what he calls a “nervous laugh.”

“(People) are so entrained by society that they are different, that we are better than animals,” he says. “Then they see a monkey show exactly the reaction that they would have under the same circumstances and this makes them a little bit nervous.”

De Waal says there are a couple of forms of fairness. It’s the simplest form that leads capuchin monkeys to protest when they get a slice of cucumber instead of a grape. A more advanced form is based on seeking fair treatment not just for yourself but for others. That is, even if you get the grape, you’re unhappy if your neighbor gets only a slice of cucumber.

Tests show that monkeys, dogs and crows do not possess this sense of fairness, but humans do. And de Waal found that chimps do, too.

“The chimpanzees would refuse the grape until the other one also gets a grape,” de Waal says. “Now, that’s a really advanced form of a sense of fairness. We think it is done to maintain good relationships.”

In Frans de Waal’s book “The Age of Empathy,” he says that humans are inherently altruistic.

But if the purpose of altruism is to maintain good relationships and ultimately benefit ourselves, is it genuine altruism?

De Waal would say yes.

“That’s the sort of discrepancy between evolutionary thinking and psychological thinking,” he says. “In evolutionary terms, every behavior that is typical of our species has to have some payoffs. Otherwise, it never would have evolved.”

De Waal says altruistic acts may have a background of self-interest, but it doesn’t mean that they are selfish at the psychological level.

“Let’s say a child falls and cries and I put an arm around the child,” de Waal says. “That general behavioral tendency has been beneficial for me and my species, but the individual act of me reaching out to the kid and lifting it up and trying to console it can be completely altruistically motivated.”

At the psychological level, De Waal says, he is being a pure altruist by comforting a child. At the evolutionary level, though, the behavior is benefiting his species.

“That’s sometimes confused when people say everything is selfish,” De Waal says. “They’re actually referring to the evolutionary explanations, not necessarily to the psychological ones, because there is genuine altruism in the world.”

De Waal says social Darwinism and the idea that people only have an obligation to themselves is a mistaken view of nature.

“Nature doesn’t operate this way,” he says. “There are many animals who survive by cooperating. … They live in groups because being together is advantageous versus being alone.”

Humans, he says, are a prime example.

“One of the worst punishments you can give a human is solitary confinement,” he says. “That already proves that we are an inherently social species and cooperation is very much a part of our social fabric.”

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