We humans might find nothing more heartwarming than seeing other animals befriend and take care of each other. But new research suggests that, although they appear to perform random acts of kindness, chimpanzees, our primate relatives with the most complex social lives, do not actually act with the simple intention of pleasing one another.
That conclusion will probably stir controversy, because chimps appear to engage in many kinds of social activities that would appear to require kindness. They groom one another — but is that kindness or just the opportunity for a delicious treat? They risk personal injury by keeping watch while others sleep — an act of selfless kindness or a bid to protect their genetic progeny? They console one another after fights erupt — again, kindness or self-protection against a riled-up friend or family member?
Demonstrating intention — or more important, lack of intention — in a species that lacks the means to communicate such a complex notion is not easy. But three evolutionary and comparative psychologists at universities in Britain and Germany set out anyway to test whether chimpanzees knowingly exhibit kindness.More.
The experiment, described at the Times, is contrived, as are all social games. And, as is likely obligatory for such research, it ignores the fundamental fact that what humans mean by kindness involves an intellectual awareness, an abstraction of the situation at hand: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” “What does it feel like to be him?” “What is the right thing to do?” “What would my teacher say?”
One can quibble over whether chimps are “kind,” using any definition that gets the pop science ink, but if chimpanzees cannot abstract, they just aren’t doing what humans mean by kindness.
Of course, the chimps might be looking after one another. Even turtles will right each other. But absent the relevant type of intellect, it is a waste of time to use human terminology to describe animal psychology.
See also: What? Humans read minds better than other animals? Obviously, animals do not have a theory of mind because they do not have theories, period. The fact that an animal can guess what another animal might do does not require a theory of mind, only awareness of likely behaviour, whether or not the entity is even alive.
An evolutionary challenge: explaining away compassion, philanthropy, and self-sacrifice
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