Two years ago, a group of Ugandan chimps provided a blow to the idea that humans are the only animals that truly behave selflessly to one another. These chimps showed clear signs of true selflessness, helping both human handlers and other unrelated chimps with no desire for reward.
The question of why we help each other, instead of looking out for ourselves, is one of the most compelling in modern biology. Evolutionary and game theory alike predict that selfish behaviour should be the rule with altruism the exception, and animal experiments have largely supported this idea. Nature, ‘red in tooth and claw’, is painted as a fierce competition between selfish individuals and their even more selfish genes. In this stark landscape, true altruism is apparently a rare quality and some scientists believe that it’s one that only we humans possess.
Even our closest relatives, chimpanzees, are not exempt from this dividing line. Certainly, there is a large amount of anecdotal evidence of chimps helping each other or even saving each others’ lives. But some thinkers believe that this behaviour, along with other seemingly selfless animal acts, is actually self-serving in one of two ways.
The chimps could be helping their relatives in order to advanced the spread of its own genes, which family members are likely to share. Or they could be doing a favour for another individual, in the knowledge that it will be repaid later on. Either way, it’s the do-gooder that eventually benefits. Humans, on the other hand, seem to flaunt this rule. We often help others who are not relatives and who are unlikely to repay the favour. We go out of our way to be helpful, and sometimes even risk personal harm to do so.
In 2007, Felix Warneken and colleagues form the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology have found compelling evidence that we are not alone. Contrary to previous studies, they have found that chimps also behave altruistically in a very human way. They help out unrelated strangers without expectation of reward, and even go to great lengths to do so.