For a long time altruistic behavior in chimpanzees in the wild has been documented--unrelated chimps helping one another without apparent expectation of reward--but documentation in a more controlled environment had been lacking, until now. A new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (coming to us via The Independent) has experimentally documented altruistic behavior in chimps.
Frans de Waal from the Yerkes National Primate Research Center says:
For the past decade we lived with the curious situation--frustrating for many chimpanzee field workers and observers--that chimps are well known for spontaneous acts of altruism, yet have not shown the same tendencies in well-controlled experiments. The negative outcome of previous experiments has led some to postulate that chimps lack prosocial tendencies altogether and that such tendencies therefore arose only in the last six million years in the human lineage, a view now popular with anthropologists, economists, and some psychologists. I have always been sceptical of the previous negative findings and their overinterpretation. This study confirms the prosocial nature of chimpanzees with a different test, better adapted to the species.
That test involved an experiment based on food which allowed female chimps could either keep food to themselves or share with a female companion.
There's a big-picture angle in this, in wondering if the reason it took so long to demonstrate altruism in a controlled environment had more to do taking chimps out of their natural environment than with the rarity or lack thereof of the altruistic behavior. Or, if philosophically, if something had been so well documented by field workers, does its documentation in a controlled setting really make it more 'real' in some way.
But frankly, I choose to see this as just one more example of how the members of the non-human animal world have complex unique existences, different from human existence no doubt, and shouldn't just be discounted as being merely little biological machines incapable of anything but instinctual action.
From an environmental perspective it furthers the notion that humans need to take into the account the inherent right of non-human animals to exist and live their lives as free from negative human influence as possible.
Perhaps its time for a change of language? We commonly say someone is
'acting like an animal' if they are lashing out. We commonly say that people give into their 'animalistic' nature when they indulge whatever desire society deems not worthy of indulgence. It seems to me those epithets are far from accurate.