Curious George Learns Helpfulness; Newspapers Go Bananas

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Posted on March 3, 2006 in Dumb Ideas, Early Man

Item: Three evolutionists at the Max Planck Institute did experiments with chimps to see if they collaborated on problem-solving.  Writing in Science,1 they said:

We presented chimpanzees with collaboration problems in which they had to decide when to recruit a partner and which potential partner to recruit.  In an initial study, individuals recruited a collaborator only when solving the problem required collaboration.  In a second study, individuals recruited the more effective of two partners on the basis of their experience with each of them on a previous day.  Therefore, recognizing when collaboration is necessary and determining who is the best collaborative partner are skills shared by both chimpanzees and humans, so such skills may have been present in their common ancestor before humans evolved their own complex forms of collaboration. (Emphasis added in all quotes.)

Item: Two other Max Planck researchers2 found an apparent link in infant behavior and monkey behavior:

Human beings routinely help others to achieve their goals, even when the helper receives no immediate benefit and the person helped is a stranger.  Such altruistic behaviors (toward non-kin) are extremely rare evolutionarily, with some theorists even proposing that they are uniquely human.  Here we show that human children as young as 18 months of age (prelinguistic or just-linguistic) quite readily help others to achieve their goals in a variety of different situations.  This requires both an understanding of others’ goals and an altruistic motivation to help.  In addition, we demonstrate similar though less robust skills and motivations in three young chimpanzees.

That was all the news media needed.  The hint that monkeys can help each other made science reporters go ape.  Clearly, more evidence had been found that humans evolved from a furry altruistic ancestor, millions of years ago.  National Geographic touted, “Chimps Can Be Team Players, Selfless Helpers, Studies Show.”  BBC News said, “Altruism ‘built-in’ in humans,” and continued, “Altruism may have evolved six million years ago in the common ancestor of chimps and humans, the study suggests.”  New Scientist claimed, “Chimpanzees show hints of higher human traits” and offered, “The discovery suggests that some of the underpinnings of human sociality may have been present millions of years ago.”  In the same issue of Science,3 Joan Silk (UCLA) waxed melodramatic:

Do you hold the door for shoppers laden with packages?  If you received two copies of the latest issue of Science in the mail, would you give the extra one to a colleague or throw it in the recycling bin?  Do you make donations to charity, serve on departmental committees, recycle bottles, or donate blood?  If you are like most people, you help in these sorts of situations and are motivated by empathy and concern for the welfare of others.  Two reports by Melis et al. on page 1297 and Warneken and Tomasello on page 1301 of this week’s issue contribute to understanding how we came to be such caring and cooperative creatures.

Silk did admit lower down in her review that previous studies produced negative results, but nevertheless left it as an option that this is a step in the right direction.  Hope springs eternal: “These studies will no doubt fuel debate about which best captures the essence of chimpanzee cooperation,” she concluded.  We can hope that the creative approach of the Leipzig research teams will inspire new experiments to address the arguments.”


1Alicia P. Melis, Brian Hare, Michael Tomasello, “Chimpanzees Recruit the Best Collaborators,” Science, 3 March 2006: Vol. 311. no. 5765, pp. 1297 — 1300, DOI: 10.1126/science.1123007.
2Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello, “Altruistic Helping in Human Infants and Young Chimpanzees,” Science, 3 March 2006: Vol. 311. no. 5765, pp. 1301 — 1303, DOI: 10.1126/science.1121448.
3Joan B. Silk, “Who Are More Helpful, Humans or Chimpanzees?,” Science, 3 March 2006: Vol. 311. no. 5765, pp. 1248 — 1249, DOI: 10.1126/science.1125141.

*Sigh.*  Has it come to this?  What fluff passes for science these days.  There is nothing about evolution here.  There is nothing about millions of years here.  A million here, a few million there, pretty soon, you’re talking about real monkey (business).  Wupi.  Some chimps under lab conditions exhibit a little bit of intelligence enough to assist one another under certain circumstances.  No one would ever think that that was behavior designed into their little brains, now, would they?  Obviously, human evolution is proved and the puzzle of human altruism is solved.  Now we know why people give blood and help disaster victims they have never seen.  Mother Teresa was in a long succession of particles that learned unselfishness.
    It seems to escape the attention of these researchers that many other studies have shown contradictory results (01/21/2006, 10/28/2005).  Even if these new studies could be shown to be superior somehow, they prove nothing about evolution.  It could be argued that ants or bees are more caring, because they will lay down their lives for the hive.
    So please show some altruism and help us out.  Your assignment is to determine which statement in these stories deserves to win Stupid Evolution Quote of the Week.  This is harder than it looks.  Decisions, decisions.

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