Altruism in Primates and Humans

There is a continously growing body of research which suggests that morality is an innate trait of human beings and our primate relatives. This fact is yet another blow to the concept of theism. No longer is god seen as the source of morals (in most cases god contradicts our sense of morality to begin with! Just read the many murders by god inside the pages of the bible for proof); they were crafted by natural selection, and ever since this theory was proposed it has caused an uproar within the theological community.

Some theologians/apologists have tried to shoot down these ideas, but more often than not, they end up completely distorting the concept all together. Take for example, David Marshall, in his book, "The Truth Behind the New Atheism", on pages 104-105:

"Dawkins and Hauser seem to see morality as one more bit of data about the evolution of a particular species. I may feel it is immoral to let a child drown. But if I see that feeling as an accidental product of evolution, like my appendix, what if I want it out? And if I'm late for work, and the child belongs to a competing race - threatening not just jeans, but selfish genes - it's hard to see how evolution furnishes any argument for saving her."

"One could conclude, as some have, 'So evolution gives us guilty feelings when we steal candy from children. Now that I understand the blind forces that produced this emotion, and the fact that it has no transcendent value, I'll take what I want.' Evolution doesn't help at all."

This isn't the only stupid thing Marshall has said about the idea of humans' innate morality. I debunked this incorrect view in my review of his book [1] so I will just copy my response from it.

I find Marshall's discussion about the evolutionary concept of morality to be extremely ignorant. He doesn't seem to understand that, as he quoted Dawkins, "Scientific facts about the world do not translate into moral shoulds," and that the process of evolution - natural selection/survival - does not equate to good moral standards and that's not where we get our morals from to begin with. Marshall seems to be confusing the actual process of evolution itself, with the fact that the process created the innate morals we seem to follow. We don't follow the evolutionary process (which created the morality); we follow a byproduct of that process. Just because something is sometimes done in nature, doesn't mean that's what the evolutionary sense of morality dictates humans do regarding "right" and "wrong."

Once again, another mistake by Marshall. His idea of "selfish genes" also seems to be mistaken. Dawkins didn't mean that genes are "selfish" as is the more common definition of " seeking or concentrating on one's own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others," but something else. In his book, "The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology", Robert Wright explains this well:

"[T]hose genes that are conductive to the survival and reproduction of copies of themselves (emphasis in original) are the genes that win. They may do this straightforwardly, by prompting their vehicle to survive, beget offspring, and equip the offspring for survival and reproduction. Or they may do this circuitously - by, say, prompting their to labor tirelessly, sterilely, and, and 'selflessly,' so that a queen ant can have lots of offspring containing them. However the genes get the job done, it is selfish from their (emphasis in original) point of view, even if it seems altruistic at the level of the organism[...]" [2]

In his book, "Moral Minds", Marc Hauser does a good job of explaining this process of how people seem to choose, without consciously understanding why they chose a particular answer, the same answers regardless of not only religion, but other differences. The entire point is that the process is near instantaneous and a person is unable to rationalize why they chose a particular answer. This is the entire point, which Marshall seems to miss. If it is 1) instantaneous and a person cannot find a rational reason for his choice and 2) the same or similar answers are given across a spectrum of individuals who have vastly different religious, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds, etc. then where are these moral decisions coming from? Because there is no evidence of a god, and the bible is a mixture of "good" and "bad" ideas about morality, then the only option left is that the process of evolution crafted some innate sense of morality.

Here is an example of a moral dilemma which highlights this innate process. If 5 people came into a hospital all needing organ transplants but no donors were available would be it moral to kill one man waiting in the waiting room to save all five? No.

Here's another. A train has lost it's breaks and is heading on a track that 5 hikers are walking on, while a side track one hiker is walking. If the conductor switches the train to the side track and kills the one man would that seem morally OK? I'd say yes, but again, why? As Mark Hauser said, "If you said 'no' to the first question and 'yes' to the second, you are like most people I know or the thousands of subjects I have tested in experiments. Further, you most likely answered these questions immediately, with little or no reflection. What, however, determined your answer?" He goes on to say how usually morality says that killing is wrong so how does it somehow "feel right" to kill in the second scenario but not the first? Some innate moral processes seem to be at work and we cannot consciously figure out why we feel about a particular scenario the way we do with the standard morality that we are taught in society or through religion. So where are these principals coming from? That is the question that the science of evolutionary morality is attempting to answer. [3]

His claim that evolution doesn't help at all is also ignorant because it's been shown that evolution seems also to have crafted our sense of altruism. From the January, 2008 issue of Discover magazine:

"For years, lacking evidence to the contrary, most scientists had assumed that altruism is unique to humans. Sure, other primates groom each other and even share food, but this kind of helping could be chalked up to selfish motives - either to benefit close relatives who share their genes or to get an immediate reward. In June, however, scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology reported the first experimental evidence of spontaneous altruism in chimpanzees, toward both non related chimps and humans.

In one experiment done with semifree-ranging chimps in Uganda, a chimp struggled to open a door locked by a chain. The researchers wanted to see if a second chimp would release the chain to help the first get food. Three-quarters of the time, the chimps in a position to help did just that. 'The crucial thing here is they help without any expectation of being rewarded, because they don't benefit from their helping,' leading researcher Felix Warneken explains.

The pattern showed up in a similar experiment with chimpanzees and humans: When a person with whom they had no prior relationship struggled to reach a stick, the chimps handed it to the person even when it required climbing up to a tall raceway. The chimps helped people just as often as 18-month-old German toddlers did in a similar set up involving a person struggling to reach a pen.

'The main finding is that humans and chimpanzees share altruistic tendencies,' Warneken says. In terms of evolution, he adds, this similarity suggests that the two species' common ancestors has these inclinations before culture developed.

And that tells us something about human nature.'There's a widely held belief that humans are selfish in the beginning and only through socialization do we turn into somewhat altruistic individuals,' Warneken says. This work suggests our nature contains the seeds for both types of behavior.'"

As can be seen, nature seems to have designed our capacity to do both good and bad. So to say following the evolutionary concept of morality will make you only care for your "in group," as Marshall suggests, is false as these findings do much to prove.

Other research confirming this is in Frans de Waal's book "Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved". de Waal cites his many years of experience working with primates and the altruistic behavior they share with humans.

On page 25 de Waal notes, "There exists ample evidence of one primate coming to another's aid in a fight, putting an arm around a previous victim of attack, or other emotional responses to the distress of others..."

"...[T]he screams of a severely punished or rejected infant rhesus monkey will often cause other infants to approach, embrace, mount, or even pile on top of the victim. Thus, the distress of one infant seems to spread to it peers, which then seek contact to soothe their own arousal." [4]

"It is reasonable to assume that the altruistic and caring responses of other animals, especially mammals, rest on similar mechanisms. When Zahn-Waxler visited homes to find out how children respond to family members instructed to feign sadness (sobbing), pain (crying), or distress (choking), she discovered that children a little over one year of age already comfort others. Since expressions of sympathy emerge at an early age in virtually every member of our species, they are as natural as the first step. An unplanned sidebar to this study, however, was that household pets appeared as worried as the children by the 'distress' of family members. They hovered over them or put their heads in their laps." [5]

To show the apes' empathetic response, de Waal tells of a story in which Ladygine-Kohts needed to get her young chimpanzee off the roof of her house, so she feigned crying in order to provoke a sympathetic response. In her own words:

"If I pretend to be crying, close my eyes and weep, Joni [her chimpanzee] immediately stops his plays or any other activities, quickly runs over to me, all excited and shagged, from the most remote places in the house, such as the roof or the ceiling of his cage, from where I could not drive him down despite my persistent calls...He hastily run around, as if looking for the offender; looking at my face, he tenderly takes my chin in his palm, lightly touches my face with though trying to understand what is happening..." [6]

Other than sympathy, it seems as if apes have an ability to understand another's plight and try to help with the situation, even at cost to themselves:

"During one winter at the Arnhem Zoo, after cleaning the hall and before releasing the chimps, the keepers hosed out all rubber tires in the enclosure and hung them one by one on a horizontal log extending from the climbing frame. One day Krom [one of the chimps] was interested in a tire in which water had stayed behind. Unfortunately, this particular tire was at the end of the row, with six or more heavy tires hanging in front of it. Krom pulled and pulled at the one she wanted but couldn't remove it from the log. She pushed the tire backward, but there it hit the climbing frame and couldn't be removed either. Krom worked in vein on this problem for over ten minutes, ignored by everyone, except Jakie, a seven year old Krom had taken care of as a juvenile.

Immediately after Krom gave up...Jakie...pushed the tires one by one off the log...[w]hen he reached the last tire, he carefully removed it so that no water was lost, carrying it straight to his aunt...

That Jakie assisted his aunt is not so unusual. What is special is that he correctly guessed what Krom was after. He grasped his auntie's goals. Such so-called 'targeted helping' is typical of apes, but rare or absent in most other animals. It is defined as altruistic behavior tailored to the specific needs of the other even in novel situations, such as the highly publicized case of Binti Jua, a female gorilla who rescued a human child at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago." [7]

Wikipedia [8] says of this incident:

"Binti is most well known for an incident which occurred on August 16, 1996. A three-year-old boy climbed the wall around her zoo enclosure and fell 6 m (20 feet) onto concrete below, rendering him unconscious. Binti walked to the boy's side while helpless spectators screamed, certain the gorilla would harm the child. Another larger female gorilla approached, and Binti growled.

Binti picked up the child, cradling him with her right arm as she did her own infant, and carried him 18 m (60 feet) to an access entrance, so that zoo personnel could retrieve him. Her 17-month-old baby, Koola, clutched her back throughout the incident. The boy spent four days in the hospital and recovered fully.

After the incident, experts debated whether Binti's actions were a result of training by the zoo or animal altruism. Because Binti had been hand-raised, as opposed to being raised in the wild by other gorillas, she had had to be specially trained to care for an infant and to take her child to personnel for examinations. One could assume that this training resulted in her behavior when the little boy fell into her enclosure.

However, there are many other examples of animals (especially primates) demonstrating apparent altruism. The strongest argument for the altruistic explanation involves a situation very similar to Binti's, in which a male gorilla named Jambo, of Jersey Zoo, protected a child who had fallen into his enclosure. Jambo was not trained to care for children and was raised in captivity by his own gorilla mother, so that his actions may have involved an instinctive sense that the child needed his help. Similar behavior has been seen in chimps who 'comfort' each other after an attack or other trauma."

Other than these observations, specific experiments have been conducted to determine whether or not altruism exists innately (one such experiment was already cited in my review of David Marshall's book above).

In one experiment, 15 rhesus monkeys were trained to get food by pulling chains. Monkeys quickly learned that one chain delivered twice as much food than the other. But then the rules changed. If a monkey pulled the chain associated with the bigger reward, another "bystander" monkey received an electric shock.

After seeing their fellow monkey get a shock, 10 of the monkeys switched their preferences to the chain associated with the lesser food reward. Two other monkeys stopped pulling either chain - preferring to starve rather than see another monkey in pain. [9]

It's been shown that as early as eighteen months of age, toddlers exhibit a desire to cooperate with those whom they perceive to have suffered in some way. In one experiment, the psychologist Felix Warneken of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology performed a number of tasks, such as stacking books and hanging towels in front of 24 18-month olds, at times struggling to reach the objects to see if it would cause a response from the children. With much consistency, the children offered their help. [10]

There is even some evidence which suggests that altruism makes us "feel good." According to research conducted by J. Rilling, by having participants play the Prisoner Dilemma Game, in which the two players have a choice to cooperate, not to cooperate, or for one to cooperate while the other doesn't. In the latter case, cooperation incurs costs to the individual and benefits only accrue to the other player. Mutual cooperation was associated with consistent activation in the brain areas that have been linked to the reward pathways. This suggests that the activation of reward pathways reinforced reciprocal altruism and motivated subjects to resist the temptation to selfishly accept favors without reciprocating them. There was also evidence of a negative response of the dopamine system if a subject cooperated but the opponent did not.

J.P. Rushton and associates, from the University of London, studied the altruistic and aggressive tendencies in 573 twins by having them fill out questionnaires. The study reported on the heritability estimates from altruism, empathy, nurturance, aggressiveness, and assertiveness. Regarding altruism specifically, the heritability was 56% and altruism increased with age while aggressiveness decreased. Virtually zero percent of the variance of each trait was due to the common environment such as early religious instruction. [11] [12]

Looking at all of this research sure seems to support a biological mechanism favoring altruism and causing humans to act kindly to one another and this also seems to be based upon the emotions (though I have read a paper by Marc Hauser rebutting this claim so it may not be entirely accurate - see below). First we feel, then we act. It seems that humans and primates react emotionally to those around them and then those emotions spur on the reciprocal, helpful, and sympathetic actions.

The paper in question is by Hauser, et al titled "Does emotion mediate the effect of an action's moral status on its intentional status? Neuropsychological evidence". [13]

Here is the Abstract:

"Studies of normal individuals reveal an asymmetry in the folk concept of intentional action: an action is more likely to be thought of as intentional when it is morally bad than when it is morally good.One interpretation of these results comes from the hypothesis that emotion plays a critical mediating role in the relationship between an action's moral status and its intentional status. According to this hypothesis,the negative emotional response triggered by a morally bad action drives the attribution of intent to the actor, or the judgment that the actor acted intentionally.

We test this hypothesis by presenting cases of morally bad and morally good action
to seven individuals with deficits in emotional processing resulting from damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC). If normal emotional processing is necessary for the observed asymmetry, then individuals with VMPC lesions should show no asymmetry. Our results provide no support for this hypothesis: like normal individuals, those with VMPC lesions showed the same asymmetry, tending to judge that an action was intentional when it was morally bad but not when it was morally good. Based on this finding, we suggest that normal emotional processing is not responsible for the observed asymmetry of intentional attributions and thus does not mediate the relationship between an action's moral status and its intentional status."


1.‭ ‬My review of David Marshall's book can be found here:‭ ‬

2.‭ ‬The Moral Animal:‭ ‬Why We Are the Way We Are:‭ ‬The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology,‭ ‬by Robert Wright‭; ‬162

3. Moral Minds:‭ ‬How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong,‭ ‬by‭ ‬Marc Hauser‭; ‬32

4. Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved, by Frans de Waal; 27

5. Ibid.; 28

6. Ibid.; 30

7. Ibid.; 31-32

8.; accessed 6-7-09

9. Masserman et al 1964

10. The Altruistic Species, by Andrew Michael Flescher & Daniel L. Worthen; 242-243

11. Did God Create Man?, by David E. Comings, M.D; 482

12. Ibid.; 483- 484

13.; accessed 6-7-09

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