Love thy neighbour: altruistic animals

It is not unusual to read a story about humans rescueing animals.  It might be the whale caught going in the wrong direction up the River Thames, a dog rescued by firemen from the bottom of a well, the ducks scrubbed by volunteers after being deluged by an oil spill. 

It is not particularly difficult to explain why we – or any other animal – might help, or even lie down our lives – for an offspring or relative.  The theory of the selfish gene says we save our relatives in order to insure the survival of our own genes which we share with them. 

What is more difficult to understand, at least if you are trying to apply a scientific theory, is altruism among animals.   How do we explain altruisism when it isn’t toward a relative?  when it isn’t even toward a member of ones own species?  when, as among non-humans, religious belief isn’t involved, when there doesn’t seem to be any reward for altruistic behavior except in the helping itself?  For example:

  • A zoo staff watched horrified when an emaciated cat made its way into the cage of a bear as it was settling down to its dinner.  Instead of including the cat in its meal, which is what the staff was sure was going to happen, the bear took a handful of its food and gave it to the cat.  They became lasting friends, and the cat a frequent dinner companion.
  • Swimmers off the coast of Australia were protected by a pod of dolphins who swam around them, fending off the attack of a predatory shark until boats were able to rescue the swimmers.
  • Chimpanzees will help humans who are trying to reach something that is in the chimps’ cage.  It might just be a stick.  Once it was a child who had fallen over the fence.  A chimp picked up the child and handed it back to its frantic mother.
  • People with pets – horses, dogs, cats, birds and guinea pigs – tell hundreds of stories like this.  Pets help them and often even save their lives.

Altruism, like intelligence, does not seem to be a uniquely human characteristic.  Maybe there is some hope in knowing that kindness is so deep-rooted.  We are not the only living beings that like to help others in trouble.


About Terry Sissons

Terry Sissons is the author of The Big Bang to Now: All of Time in Six Chunks, and this blog is a dialogue about the universe and what’s happened in the last 13 billions years.
This entry was posted in a scientific theory examined, humans, primates, and other life on earth. Bookmark the permalink.

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