A Moment of Science

Are Chimps Nice Guys?

The question is, do animals do things for other animals without receiving any reward, including food, love, attention?

two chimps interacting at the zoo

Photo: foshie (flickr)

If they have indeed documented altruistic behavior in chimps, that would be very significant.

Here’s a question for you. Are animals other than humans altruistic?

The question is, do animals do things for other animals without receiving any reward, including food, love, attention?

You can see why this is a harder question than it appears. In fact, until very recently it was believed that no other species than humans behaved altruistically. However, a study done by Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello at the Max Plank Institute caught chimpanzees doing just that.

The experimenters arranged situations whereby chimpanzees would see that they, the experimenters, needed help. For example, while hanging a sheet on a line the experimenter would suddenly drop a clothespin out of reach. The experimenter tried reaching for the clothespin, made eye contact with the chimpanzee, and said “My pin!” in a frustrated way. Sure enough, the chimpanzees hurried over to hand the clothespin up, even though they were not rewarded for the behavior.

Warneken and Tomasello’s work is only a beginning. However, if they have indeed documented altruistic behavior in chimps, that would be very significant. It would mean the genetic basis for altruism is much older than was thought, going back at least to the point where human and chimps branch off the evolutionary tree from a common ancestor. That would make being a nice guy some six million years old.

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