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Do Primates Feel Compassion?

Do Primates Feel Compassion?

Morality is usually seen as the exclusive province of humans with highly developed brains. But world-famous primatologist Frans de Waal believes primates like chimpanzees and bonobos are moral creatures too. Ethics, he feels, is an inborn biological trait.

That is not the prevailing scientific view. De Waal describes that perspective in his book Our Inner Ape (Riverhead Books, 2005) as follows: “If people commit mass murder, we call them ‘animals.’ But if they give money to the poor, we praise them for their ‘humanity.’ He goes on to argue that animal impulses aren’t only “lower” feelings like fear, rage and territorial instincts, but “higher” emotions like justice and sympathy.

By declaring ethics a biological phenomenon, De Waal calls the prominent theory of “the selfish gene” into question. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins came up with the term to express the idea that organisms are essentially nothing but vehicles for genetic survival. Human existence, according to Dawkins, is driven by genes’ reproductive instincts. He argues that people behave morally only to impress others, which gives them a greater chance of survival.

De Waal considers this a cynical position, not supported by his many years of research into the moral characteristics of primates, specifically the bonobos, who are believed to be humans’ closest living relatives. Bonobos are remarkably friendly, sociable creatures; not for nothing are they called “the hippie apes.” But even their more churlish brethren, the chimpanzees, demonstrate moral behaviour: They share food, show a strong sense of right and wrong and exhibit feelings of shame, guilt, sympathy and concern.

This idea was demonstrated in 1996 when a 3-year-old boy fell 18 feet into the primate enclosure at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo. A gorilla named Binti Jua picked up the child and carried him to safety. She sat down on a log and rocked the boy on her lap, patting him a few times on his back, before taking him to waiting zoo staff. Her show of sympathy, captured on video and shown around the world, touched many hearts.

Yet images like this do not convince some scientists of animals’ capacity for moral behaviour. In his book If Dogs Could Talk: Exploring the Canine Mind (North Point Press, 2005), Hungarian ethologist Vilmos Csányi argues that canines are driven mainly by emotions. For instance, he argues it’s a misconception to think that a dog who’s done something naughty is hiding under the table out of shame; what the dog really feels is fear of its owner’s harsh reprimand. “Shame is an emotion of a very high order,” writes Csányi, “and among humans, it is the expression of very complex social relations, which, I believe, dogs did not need during the course of domestication.”

In spite of his skepticism about morality outside the human community, Csányi’s book is peppered with moving examples of exceptional behaviour by animals. Take the story of the elephant who thundered menacingly into a compound of wildlife scientists in Kenya. The staff fled in panic, except one employee who recognized the elephant as a female he had looked after for six years. The elephant had since been successfully integrated into a wild herd in a national park and had obviously come by to give her caretaker a hug. She touched him gently with her trunk, embracing him occasionally. After half an hour, she left again, trumpeting loudly. What else can you call that but love?

Whether love and morality go hand in hand, however, is a subject for another day.

Read more: Behavior & Communication, Spirit, , , ,

By Tijn Touber, Ode Magazine

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Megan, selected from The Intelligent Optimist

Ode, the magazine for Intelligent Optimists, is an international independent journal that publishes positive news, about the people and ideas that are changing our world for the better.

56 comments

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4:26PM PDT on Sep 6, 2010

Hey everyone, you can help the Jane Goodall Institute (they work for conservation of chimpanzees and their habitat) win $10,000! Go to www.takepart.com/membersproject/vote and vote for the JGI! You can vote once a week so please help out! It's free, easy and a great way to make a difference

12:14PM PDT on Aug 20, 2010

Animals show more compassion towards humans than we show to them.

10:04AM PDT on Jun 9, 2010

Absolutely primates and, in my opinion, All animals feel and show a great deal more compassion than do most people

5:30PM PDT on May 24, 2010

Touching article. Thanks

8:02PM PDT on May 11, 2010

Most of my experience with animals is around dogs and cats. Wow, are they smart of what? And they definitely can display a wide range of emotions. I fully support that view, that animals possess much more complex emotions than fear and need for survival.

2:57PM PDT on May 5, 2010

They feel it much more than humans, without question. Humans are the only species on this earth lacking compassion, in my book.

11:13AM PDT on May 5, 2010

Interesting read. Thanks.

1:32AM PDT on May 5, 2010

They most definately experince compassion and grief more so than 99% of humans.

9:46AM PDT on May 4, 2010

Christian Barnard,famous heart surgeon, wrote, "I had bought two male chimps from a primate colony in Holland. They lived next to each other in cages for several months before I used one as a [heart] donor. When we put him to sleep in his cage in preparation for the operation, he chattered and cried incessantly. We attached no significance to this, but it must have made a great impression on his companion, for when we removed the body to the operating room, the other chimp wept bitterly and was inconsolable for days. The incident made a deep impression on me. I vowed never again to experiment with such senstive creatures."
If a "scientific" doctor saw and understood what was happening between these sensitive creatures, how do compassionate people blind themselves to it? Only humans kill each other for the thrill of the act or just because they can.

12:07PM PDT on May 2, 2010

Thank you

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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