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December 3rd, 2009
In the News: For Chimps, Ask and Ye Shall Receive
Are chimpanzees altruistic?

Are chimpanzees altruistic?

Part of possessing the Human Spark might be the inclination toward altruism – helping others even when there’s no benefit to yourself, and maybe even a cost. Obviously human beings have a general capacity to help; think of volunteers rushing to the aftermath of a natural disaster or a pedestrian helping an elderly lady across the street. But is this an impulse we share with other animals? A new study suggests that chimpanzees do help out other chimps – but are much more likely to help if the chimp in need basically asks for it.

In the experiment, chimps were separated in side-by-side clear booths. The researchers wanted to see if the animals would transfer a necessary tool from one to the other – they provided a stick to reel in a juice box and a straw to drink from it. Sometimes chimps spontaneously passed the tool to their partners. But if the recipient actively solicited help by reaching into its partner’s booth or clapping its hands, the giver was more likely to help. The social relationship between the two chimps did affect whether or not help was offered.

Are you surprised to learn that chimps communicate in this way? What do you think the difference is between this study’s observations and the voluntary altruism of human beings?

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  • Laura Peterson

    I’ve been trying to find out how far this extends. Is there any evidence of this in Gorillas? Orangutans? Gibbons? Monkeys? Lemurs? (in that order) Basically how far back in our family tree did this arise? I know technically there is no altruism, we feel like we do things because we care and we do, but we care because those of us who cared more had more babies because everyone liked us and thus told us when there was a cave bear behind us. But that would make it seem like more types of social animals would have evolved seeming altruism, or did they not have the genetics for it? Like lions?

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