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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Do animals act altruistically?

There are many occurances in the animal world where animals help out others.

Perhaps the highest degree of altruism is giving up your life so that others can live. For example:

•Individual bees defend their colonies to the point of killing themselves. You risk being stung disturbing a honeybee nest. The sting from a bee embeds in your skin and when the bee flies away the embedded sting pulls out the bee’s viscera killing the bee. Bees act altruistically by sacrificing themselves for their colony.

•Some animals, such as robins and thrushes, place their lives in danger when warning others of an approaching raptor, eg a hawk, by emitting a high pitched whistle. Whistles are difficult for raptors to pinpoint but might nevertheless reveal the caller’s position, who could then fall prey to the raptor. Meerkats (above graphic) post sentinels to watch for danger from predators and the sentinels are similarly at risk when sounding their alarm. Sentinels are acting altruistically.

There is always a cost of some sort in altruistic behaviour, although the cost need not necessarily endanger the altruist’s life. Two examples of altruism not involving danger come from wild chimpanzees:

•Chimpanzees eat plants and fruit but occasionally catch and eat baboons. A chimpanzee who catches a baboon sometimes gives bits of the carcass to soliciting chimpanzees. By giving away the food the altruist loses potential nourishment.

•The adoption of orphaned infants is another altruism characteristic of chimpanzees, and humans. A major loss to the altruist is the energy put into raising someone else’s offspring.

Take, for example, the story of a female western lowland gorilla named Binti Jua, Swahili for “daughter of sunshine,” who lived in the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois. One summer day in 1996, a three-year-old boy climbed the wall of the gorilla enclosure at Brookfield and fell twenty feet onto the concrete floor below. As spectators gaped and the boy’s mother screamed in terror, Binti Jua approached the unconscious boy. She reached down and gently lifted him, cradling him in her arms while her own infant, Koola, clung to her back. Growling warnings at the other gorillas who tried to get close, Binti Jua carried the boy safely to an access gate and the waiting zoo staff.

Even more striking, within this huge repertoire of prosocial behaviors, particular patterns of behavior seem to constitute a kind of animal morality. Mammals living in tight social groups appear to live according to codes of conduct, including both prohibitions against certain kinds of behavior and expectations for other kinds of behavior. They live by a set of rules that fosters a relatively harmonious and peaceful coexistence. They’re naturally cooperative, will offer aid to their fellows, sometimes in return for like aid, sometimes with no expectation of immediate reward. They build relationships of trust. What’s more, they appear to feel for other members of their communities, especially relatives, but also neighbors and sometimes even strangers—often showing signs of what looks very much like compassion and empathy.

Surfer Todd Endris needed a miracle. The shark - a monster great white that came out of nowhere - had hit him three times, peeling the skin off his back and mauling his right leg to the bone. That’s when a pod of bottlenose dolphins intervened, forming a protective ring around Endris, allowing him to get to shore, where quick first aid provided by a friend saved his life

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