The empathy of apes

Column by Jamie LaRue

Posted 8/12/11

It's been said so many times we believe it. It's a dog-eat-dog world. Survival of the fittest. Whether it's life in the wild or in the marketplace, …

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The empathy of apes

Column by Jamie LaRue


It's been said so many times we believe it. It's a dog-eat-dog world. Survival of the fittest. Whether it's life in the wild or in the marketplace, competition and self-interest is what drives us.

But what are we to make of this? In 1964, a group of psychiatrists led by Jules Masserman at Northwestern University reported in the American Journal of Psychiatry that "rhesus monkeys refused to pull a chain that delivered food to themselves if doing so gave a shock to a companion. One monkey stopped pulling the chain for 12 days after witnessing another monkey receive a shock. Those primates were literally starving themselves to avoid shocking another animal." (See the magazine "Greater Good," Fall/Winter 2005-06.)

Or consider this report by Franz B. M. de Waal, a Dutch psychologist, primatologist and ethologist, on another primate study in Taï National Park, in Ivory Coast. "... chimpanzees took care of group mates wounded by leopards, licking their blood, carefully removing dirt, and waving away flies that came near the wounds. They protected injured companions, and slowed down during travel in order to accommodate them."

Isn't such behavior counter-intuitive? Wouldn't more chimps survive if they simply abandoned the wounded?

No. de Waal goes on, "All of this makes perfect sense given that chimpanzees live in groups for a reason, the same way wolves and humans are group animals for a reason. If man is wolf to man, he is so in every sense, not just the negative one. We would not be where we are today had our ancestors been socially aloof."

de Waal has written many fascinating articles and books. Douglas County Libraries has several of them, including "The age of empathy: Nature's lessons for a kinder society" published in 2009, "Primates and philosophers: how morality evolved," published in 2006, and "Animal social complexity: intelligence, culture and individualized societies," published in 2005.

He can turn a phrase. "What we need is a complete overhaul of assumptions about human nature. Too many economists and politicians model human society on the perpetual struggle they believe exists in nature, but which is a mere projection. Like magicians, they first throw their ideological prejudices into the hat of nature, then pull them out by their very ears to show how much nature agrees with them. It’s a trick for which we have fallen for too long. Obviously, competition is part of the picture, but humans can’t live by competition alone."

It's not all sweetness and light in the jungle, whether floral or concrete. Chimpanzees sometimes turn murderously violent. I remember the rage and acting out of my own adolescence.

Yet apes empathize. Research suggests they also mourn, laugh, and reconcile.

Of course, anyone who has ever owned a cat, a dog, or even a bird knows that emotions are not unique to humans.

Or as de Wall puts it, “We start out postulating sharp boundaries, such as between humans and apes, or between apes and monkeys, but are in fact dealing with sand castles that lose much of their structure when the sea of knowledge washes over them. They turn into hills, leveled ever more, until we are back to where evolutionary theory always leads us: a gently sloping beach.”

PS: This didn't quite fit in the frame of the column, but I found it fascinating. This is from the Wikipedia article on "Emotion in animals." The author Marc Bekoff also provided evidence of animals having emotions in his book, “The Emotional Lives of Animals.” The following is an excerpt from his book:

“A few years ago my friend Rod and I were riding our bicycles around Boulder, Colorado, when we witnessed a very interesting encounter among five magpies. Magpies are corvids, a very intelligent family of birds. One magpie had obviously been hit by a car and was laying dead on the side of the road. The four other magpies were standing around him. One approached the corpse, gently pecked at it — just as an elephant noses the carcass of another elephant — and stepped back. Another magpie did the same thing. Next, one of the magpies flew off, brought back some grass, and laid it by the corpse. Another magpie did the same. Then, all four magpies stood vigil for a few seconds and one by one flew off.”

Jamie LaRue is director of Douglas County Libraries. LaRue’s views are his own.


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