Are Only Humans Good Samaritans?

By Chris Mooney | June 1, 2010 7:04 am

Vanessa Woods CoverThis is a guest post from Vanessa Woods, author of the new book, Bonobo Handshake. Vanessa is a Research Scientist in Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University and studies the cognition of chimpanzees and bonobos in Congo.

The following is a modified excerpt from Bonobo Handshake.

In 1988, a crane operator called Joe Honner was digging out telegraph poles on Darrell Tree’s farm in South Australia. Joe’s three-year-old son was sitting with him in the cabin while Joe maneuvered the crane.

Suddenly, the crane swung into live telegraph wires. Over nineteen thousand volts of electricity shot through the broken wires into the crane, which, being made of metal, was a superb conductor. Joe jumped clear, but his son was stuck in the cabin. Joe rushed forward to get his son, but he was held back by the farmer, Darrell. The little boy was fine, Darrell said, as long as he didn’t move. The electricity wound around the crane, creating a perfect circuit, but the leather interior of the cabin was untouched. The boy was frightened and started to cry. As Darrell turned to get a rope to rescue him, Joe rushed forward. As soon as he touched the crane, he tapped into the circuit and electricity shot through his body, arcing him backward and rooting him to the spot.

Darrell charged Joe, pushing him clear. Both of them were knocked unconscious. When Darrell came to, he saw the boy lying curled on the ground beside the crane. Electricity was shooting through his head near his right ear. Darrell charged again and pulled the boy away from the crane. Again, the voltage knocked him unconscious. This time when he revived, Joe and his son were away from the crane, but neither of them was breathing. Darrell gave them both mouth-to-mouth and CPR. The boy lived, but Joe died before the ambulance arrived.

As for Darrell, the force of the electricity fused his spine and cracked his vertebrae. He had to have sixty-six stitches all over his body and the electric shock burned off his little toe.

Whatever you want to call it—heroism, altruism, temporary insanity—everyone from psychologists to economists claims that intentionally helping an unrelated individual at a cost to yourself is uniquely human. Despite Lassie, Flipper, and the other animal heroes, no one has solid evidence that any creature besides humans has altruistic tendencies, hence the word humanitarianism.

Even though not all of us would rush to take on nineteen thousand volts of electricity to save a child, most of us perform small frequent acts of altruism, like donating to charities or giving blood. Thousands of experiments have been designed to try to figure out where it comes from. What are the psychological and emotional mechanisms that allow us to put the welfare of someone else before our own?

The Dictator Game is one of the more famous experiments that prove our innate benevolence. Say you have $100. There is someone in the next room, a stranger you have never met before and whom you will never see. You can give them as much of your $100 as you want, or, like an evil dictator, you can keep all the money and give them nothing.

According to hard-bitten economic theory, you would give the other person zero. You don’t know them. You will never see them again. Why would you give them anything?

But economists have found over and over again that many people give as much as half. This kind of altruism has been found all over the world in all different cultures. It has even been found in eighteen-month-old babies. This, say the economists, is what makes us human. All of us are capable of these small acts of kindness that occasionally lead to the heroic acts of people like Darrell Tree.

The food sharing experiment is essentially playing the Dictator Game with bonobos, but instead of money, we use food.

Semendwa sits up straight, her eyes focused on a pile of food in the next room. She hasn’t eaten this morning, and the mound of food has papaya, cucumbers, pineapple, and her favorite—green apples. Semendwa loves green apples so much she will cut your heart out if she even suspects you are hiding them from her.

In the other room is Kikwit. He is also watching the apples, but he is behind a door that can only be opened by Semendwa. Brian opens Semendwa’s door. She comes into the room with the apples. Kikwit calls out.

Then, without even touching the apples, she goes to Kikwit’s one-way door, unlocks it, and lets him in.

Bingo. Semendwa has effectively given Kikwit half of her $100. She didn’t do it because she just enjoys his company—she could have eaten the food first, or at least the apple, before she let Kikwit in. She didn’t touch the food. They didn’t even have sex. She didn’t have a fetish for opening doors because on the other side of the room is another door that connects to an empty room. No. Before eating any of the food, Semendwa let in Kikwit so she could share with him.

Brian is ecstatic. It’s the strongest experimental evidence of altruism in a primate other than a human, and he has found it in bonobos. There is no way a chimp would do the same thing. Brian has already tested the Ngamba chimps in a similar experiment and the results were conclusive—if the chimps didn’t need help to get the food, they wouldn’t share it.

He tries the same experiment with Semendwa and Sake, a baby female in the nursery who only arrived a few years before. Sake and Semendwa are in separate groups. They are strangers. They have never met or touched. But still Sake lets Semendwa in.

Of course we call it food sharing and not altruism in the paper, because otherwise the economists would die of heart attacks. But I think it’s altruism. And I’m sticking to it.

*My new book Bonobo Handshake is out now. It’s available on Amazon, or through my website


Comments (11)

  1. Nullius in Verba
  2. Guy

    Good story.

    I wonder what kind traits you could get if there was cross breading between Bonobos and Chimpanzees. Would you get more male aggression, less female grouping or would more of the Bonobo traits become dominate?

  3. ponderingfool

    Hasn’t altruism been suggested in chimps (albeit the authors of the linked paper below suggest it may be masked by other factors in the wild)?
    “Debates about altruism are often based on the assumption that it is either unique to humans or else the human version differs from that of other animals in important ways. Thus, only humans are supposed to act on behalf of others, even toward genetically unrelated individuals, without personal gain, at a cost to themselves. Studies investigating such behaviors in nonhuman primates, especially our close relative the chimpanzee, form an important contribution to this debate. Here we present experimental evidence that chimpanzees act altruistically toward genetically unrelated conspecifics. In addition, in two comparative experiments, we found that both chimpanzees and human infants helped altruistically, regardless of any expectation of reward, even when some effort was required, and even when the recipient was an unfamiliar individual—all features previously thought to be unique to humans. The evolutionary roots of human altruism may thus go deeper than previously thought, reaching as far back as the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees.”

  4. Nullius in Verba


    Yes, that’s the book.

    The link didn’t work, so I’m not sure what point you wanted to make.

  5. Every Humans should have altruism.Altruism is a right way of living. Humans without altruism may not be able to live a life. Like Darrel and Semendwa, we should fellow at least some part of this habit. Every Human must Be treat other ones like a Humans not like as animals. We must an example of altruism in front of our children so that we can make our children to Good Human being.

  6. Nullius,

    Sorry. Not sure what happened there.

    And read the first section: “Selfish” Gene.

    It looked to me as if you might be misconstruing the intended meaning.

  7. Nullius in Verba


    I’m still not entirely sure I get your meaning, but I’m going to guess.

    What I was commenting on was the section including “everyone from psychologists to economists claims that intentionally helping an unrelated individual at a cost to yourself is uniquely human. Despite Lassie, Flipper, and the other animal heroes, no one has solid evidence that any creature besides humans has altruistic tendencies, hence the word humanitarianism.”

    However, my understanding of this question was formed by having read The Selfish Gene in which animal altruism was reportedly well known, widely observed, and considered a problem for Darwinian evolution (as it was then understood) to explain. The entire book is about explaining altruism in evolutionary terms, and showing that it is natural and logical, and therefore likely to be widespread.

    My second paragraph linked to another list of examples of reported animal altruism.

    So, far from everyone claiming that altruism is uniquely human, the consensus appears to be the opposite. Everyone acknowledges that altruism is, to varying degrees, quite common in the animal kingdom. And given the evolutionary arguments Dawkins sets out, it would be entirely remarkable and a bit suspicious if it really did only apply to humans.

    But I was trying to avoid conflict here, and given that I wouldn’t claim to be any sort of an expert on primate psychology, I was leaving the question as open-ended as I could. But I did assume that any biologist would be well aware that The Selfish Gene was a book all about animal altruism, and would understand the point.

    However, I see now that it wasn’t clear, and could perhaps be misunderstood as a suggestion that Bonobo’s were not being genuinely altruistic, but selfish. That still doesn’t quite fit, but it’s my best guess.

    Does that help at all?

  8. Nullius,

    Actually, I apologize. The misunderstanding is completely mine. As the post is about altruism, I misread your post to be snark, and implying a simplistic interpretation of “selfish,” which has happened a fair bit in connection with that book.

    I literally had just had a conversation on Monday night with someone who told me that because we’re not all selfish, clearly that book was wrong. So I admit I read your post from a heavily biased POV. My bad.

  9. Nullius in Verba

    No problem.

    I admit, I wasn’t at all clear. It’s helpful to have that pointed out, so I can clarify.

  10. Brian Too

    Funny how perspective can change interpretations.

    Some look at powerful evidence like this and feel that it somehow denigrates people. We are no longer unique! God’s own creation is no longer at the center of the universe.

    I look at this and feel that it uplifts bonobos, at least in my mind. Not that they need my approval. And yet it makes sense to me too. They are primates, and social animals. They clearly have minds and function at a level higher than simple instinct.

    Ich bin ein bonobo!


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


See More

Collapse bottom bar