Until now, many researchers assumed that spontaneous altruistic behavior in primates could be attributed to factors they would share with humans: advanced cognitive skills, large brains, high social tolerance, collective foraging or the presence of pair bonds or other strong social bonds. As Burkart’s new data now reveal, however, none of these factors reliably predicts whether a primate species will be spontaneously altruistic or not. Instead, another factor that sets us humans apart from the great apes appears to be responsible. Says Burkart: “Spontaneous, altruistic behavior is exclusively found among species where the young are not only cared for by the mother, but also other group members such as siblings, fathers, grandmothers, aunts and uncles.” This behavior is referred to technically as the “cooperative breeding” or “allomaternal care.”
The significance of this study goes beyond identifying the roots of our altruism. Cooperative behavior also favored the evolution of our exceptional cognitive abilities. During development, human children gradually construct their cognitive skills based on extensive selfless social inputs from caring parents and other helpers, and the researchers believe that it is this new mode of caring that also put our ancestors on the road to our cognitive excellence. This study may, therefore, have just identified the foundation for the process that made us human. As Burkart suggests: “When our hominin ancestors began to raise their offspring cooperatively, they laid the foundation for both our altruism and our exceptional cognition.”
Minor quibble: Among humans, few consider looking after one’s own kith and kin to be altruism.
Where I live, that just means not being a deadbeat. Not facing court orders.
The bar is set much higher than that, I am afraid. It means, for example, visiting jailbirds and mental patients, unrelated to oneself and possibly dangerous.
Also, altruism is not spontaneous; it is a habit, usually a fairly organized one.
But, of course, any time human behaviour appears unique, it must somehow be boiled down to whatever some (even distantly related) primate—in this case, Callitrichidae (tamarins and marmosets)—does. Note: Chimps did not behave the same way, despite their supposed 98% or 99% similarity to humans.
The paper (paywall) is called The evolutionary origin of human hyper-cooperation. (Nature Communications, 2014; 5: 4747)
As if it were “hyper” for humans to behave like this.
Here’s the abstract:
Proactive, that is, unsolicited, prosociality is a key component of our hyper-cooperation, which in turn has enabled the emergence of various uniquely human traits, including complex cognition, morality and cumulative culture and technology. However, the evolutionary foundation of the human prosocial sentiment remains poorly understood, largely because primate data from numerous, often incommensurable testing paradigms do not provide an adequate basis for formal tests of the various functional hypotheses. We therefore present the results of standardized prosociality experiments in 24 groups of 15 primate species, including humans. Extensive allomaternal care is by far the best predictor of interspecific variation in proactive prosociality. Proactive prosocial motivations therefore systematically arise whenever selection favours the evolution of cooperative breeding. Because the human data fit this general primate pattern, the adoption of cooperative breeding by our hominin ancestors also provides the most parsimonious explanation for the origin of human hyper-cooperation.
These people make it very clear that they will clutch at any straw to make humans out to be just animals. Is this dangerous?
See also: Evolutionary psychologist goes to work on the smile
Insightful, isn’t it? Just what you needed to know about why you catch yourself smiling when you feel at peace with the world …
Watch for my upcoming series at Evolution News & Views on Darwinizing the mind (and the nonsense that is inevitably a feature, not a bug)
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