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Human evolution: Does compassion set humans apart?

File:Good Samaritan (icon).jpg
Good Samaritan (Russian 18th c)/Luke 10:25–37

Recently, a claim whistled through the pop science media: Bonobos help strangers without being asked, therefore human are not special. The claim is noteworthy only for the authors’ apparent assumption that most readers don’t realize that many animals help without being asked, provided they have any idea what to do. Usually, they don’t. The animals-are-just-fuzzy-people stuff caters to the growing conviction that humans are not special, — a conviction for which the best excuse would have to be “I never read or think much, I don’t care what happens politically. My big issue is, my dealer has gone to rehab.”

Meanwhile, from Penny Spikins at Sapiens:

There are, perhaps surprisingly, only two known cases of likely interpersonal violence in the archaic species most closely related to us, Neanderthals. That’s out of a total of about 30 near-complete skeletons and 300 partial Neanderthal finds. One—a young adult living in what is now St. Césaire, France, some 36,000 years ago—had the front of his or her skull bashed in. The other, a Neanderthal found in Shanidar Cave in present-day Iraq, was stabbed in the ribs between 45,000 and 35,000 years ago, perhaps by a projectile point shot by a modern human.

The earliest possible evidence of what might be considered warfare or feuding doesn’t show up until some 13,000 years ago at a cemetery in the Nile Valley called Jebel Sahaba, where many of the roughly 60 Homo sapiens individuals appear to have died a violent death.

Evidence of human care, on the other hand, goes back at least 1.5 million years—to long before humans were anatomically modern. A Homo ergaster female from Koobi Fora in Kenya, dated to about 1.6 million years ago, survived several weeks despite a toxic overaccumulation of vitamin A. She must have been given food and water, and protected from predators, to live long enough for this disease to leave a record in her bones. More.

What makes human compassion different isn’t the caring, it’s the cognitive ability to understand what, specifically, is happening, which usually requires some abstraction, maybe a good deal of abstraction. Then there is, of course, the moral choice to care but we will leave that for another day. Doing anything about many problems requires many years of abstract thought among thousands of human beings over centuries of favorable environments. In the process, they tend to lose concern only for kin, etc., and develop a broader picture.

Oh, wait.  A new paper in the offing claims bonobos are doing all that now. 😉  File with it with papers on: Are apes entering the Stone Age?

See also: Claim: Bonobos help strangers without being asked, therefore human are not special Many intelligent animals will assist strangers without being asked (see the self-taught therapy cat vid below), provided they perceive no loss or threat in doing so. Turtles, not known for high intelligence, will right each other, though they can’t right themselves. … A story like this bonobo featurette (and many similar ones) rattles through the science media only for the purpose of asserting that humans are not special, not for any genuinely surprising information it provides.

Animal minds: In search of the minimal self


How can we believe in naturalism if we have no choice?


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