October 22, 2009

It’s a bonobo-help-bird world, not dog-eat-dog

We’re taught that nature requires humans to be selfish, but a new study argues that empathy is natural for all animals

The strangest interview I have conducted — and the most moving — took place in a hot Georgia swamp with a young mother named Panbanisha, who spent much of the time scratching herself and trying to stick a twig in my ear. We discussed marshmallows and fruit, swatted mosquitoes and played hide-and-seek for hours.

At the end, she gave me part of her banana, and urinated on my foot.

Panbanisha was a 14-year-old bonobo, an African ape similar to a chimpanzee, that had been taught to “speak”’ by scientists at a primate research centre near Atlanta, using a computer keypad with pictograms and a voice synthesiser.

Bonobos are probably our closest animal relatives, sharing more DNA with us (98.7 per cent) than they do with gorillas. They are risk-averse, peaceable, vegetarian and exceptionally keen on sex, which they use to defuse tense situations. Several American fan clubs are devoted to the “hippy chimp”, which The New Yorker recently described as “equal parts dolphin, Dalai Lama and Warren Beatty”.

What struck me as most “human” about Panbanisha was not her mastery of rudimentary language (a working vocabulary of perhaps 250 words), but how she played hide and seek. It quickly became apparent, as we took turns to hide, that she was trying to understand what I was thinking, and thus what I was planning to do. Deception requires empathy, the ability imaginatively to inhabit the lives of others. In a small but astonishing way, this ape was trying to get inside my mind.

Empathy, an emotional tuning to others’ feelings, and the altruism that accompanies it, seems in short supply in the human world. With bankers greedily reamassing fortunes, MPs feathering their own duck islands, wars for oil and rogue states on the hunt for nuclear muscle, humanity seems close to the dog-eat-dog vision of Thomas Hobbes, the war of all against all, in which “man is wolf to man”.

There is a widely held assumption that humans are hard-wired for relentless and ruthless competition, locked into a Darwinian struggle for survival and individual success. For centuries some economists and biologists have argued that nature, red in tooth and claw, requires us to be selfish too.

The Dutch psychologist and primatologist Frans de Waal sees nature differently — as a biological legacy in which empathy, not mere self interest, is shared by humans, bonobos and animals in general. In his new book, The Age of Empathy, De Waal cites an amazing array of evidence to show that altruism, self-sacrifice, co-operation and even notions of fairness abound not just among our close primate relatives, but throughout the animal kingdom.

De Waal’s research shows that mutual assistance, not ferocious competition, is the default position of animals, and not just within the herd. He cites tigers nursing piglets (when they might be expected to regard such things as a light snack), and seals that save dogs from drowning.

Chimps lick each other’s wounds, prefer to share and display a keen sense of outrage when goods are unfairly distributed. Kuni, a female bonobo that finds a wounded bird, spreads its wings to set it flying again. Whales seem to exhibit a form of gratitude.

Animals are not only capable of altruism, it seems, but predisposed to perform empathetic acts that are not directly in their own interests. Elephants and dolphins aid companions in distress. A rhesus monkey will not pull the chain that delivers food once it has become aware that to do so also administers an electric shock to a fellow monkey.

Even wolves console one another after a fight. Dogs, contrary to what humans have long chosen to believe, do not eat dogs.

This not some soppy form of anthropomorphism. De Waal’s argument is that if the animal kingdom is innately caring and dependent on mutual support, the same must surely be true of our species.

If beasts are not beastly and brutes not brutish, why, in Hobbes’s grim summary, need the life of man be “nasty, brutish and short”?

“The story of empathy,” he writes, “means that even our most thoughtful reactions to others share core processes with the reactions of ... elephants, dogs and rodents”.

Modern culture tolerates, and even encourages, the idea that selfishness, raw competition and self-advancement are natural, even laudable. In fact, the herd instinct, the sense of being part of a larger whole, lies at the core of all animal societies. When individual members of the community are allowed unbridled self-interest, the entire pack suffers: think of Enron.

Adam Smith is often held up as the father of the unfettered free market, a supposed economic free-for-all in which the weak must perish, but the author of The Wealth of Nations was acutely aware of the need for “fellow feeling”, an innate altruism more valuable than wealth: “How selfish so ever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”

Empathy is often regarded as a uniquely human characteristic, setting us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. The reverse may be closer to the truth, as science reveals just how emotionally attuned animals are to the feelings of their companions.

Male chimps tend to ignore their young. But when competing for status, to impress the rest of troop, they go out of their way to groom, cuddle and tickle the babies. This is chimp electioneering, the ultimate expression of primate empathy.

When a banker forgoes a bonus, a politician kisses a child, or a couple make up in bed after a fight, these are responses to a natural empathy, a reflection of the inner bonobo in all of us.