Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

primate:The roots of human altruism

27.08.2014

Apes hardly ever act selflessly without being solicited by others; humans often do. What has caused this curious divergence, which is arguably the secret to our species’ unparalleled success? A team headed by an anthropologist from the University of Zurich now reveals that cooperative care for the young was the evolutionary precondition for the emergence of spontaneous altruistic behavior.

Scientists have long been searching for the factor that determines why humans often behave so selflessly. It was known that humans share this tendency with species of small Latin American primates of the family Callitrichidae (tamarins and marmosets), leading some to suggest that cooperative care for the young, which is ubiquitous in this family, was responsible for spontaneous helping behavior. But it was not so clear what other primate species do in this regard, because most studies were not comparable.


Common marmosets playing: The individual on the right hand side pulls the board for its group mates.

(picture: Judith Burkart)

A group of researchers from Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Italy and Great Britain, headed by anthropologist Judith Burkart from the University of Zurich, therefore developed a novel approach they systematically applied to a great number of primate species. The results of the study have now been published in Nature Communications.

For their study, Burkart and her colleagues developed the new paradigm of group service, which examines spontaneous helping behavior in a standardized way. With the aid of a simple test apparatus, the researchers studied whether individuals from a particular primate species were prepared to provide other group members with a treat, even if this meant missing out themselves (see box). The scientists applied this standardized test to 24 social groups of 15 different primate species. They also examined whether and how kindergarten children aged between four and seven acted altruistically.

The researchers found that the willingness to provision others varies greatly from one primate species to the next. But there was a clear pattern, as summarized by Burkart: “Humans and callitrichid monkeys acted highly altruistically and almost always produced the treats for the other group members. Chimpanzees, one of our closest relatives, however, only did so sporadically.” Similarly, most other primate species, including capuchins and macaques, only rarely pulled the lever to give another group member food, if at all – even though they have considerable cognitive skills.

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.”


Literature:
J. M. Burkart, O. Allon, F. Amici, C. Fichtel, C. Finkenwirth, A. Heschl, J. Huber, K. Isler, Z. K. Kosonen, E. Martins, E. Meulman, R. Richiger, K. Rueth, B. Spillmann, S. Wiesendanger & C. P. van Schaik (2014). The evolutionary origin of human hyper-cooperation. Nature Communications 5:4747 doi: 10.1038/ncomms5747.


Test set-up for the altruism study
A treat is placed on a moving board outside the cage and out of the animal’s reach. With the aid of a handle, an animal can pull the board closer and bring the food within reach. However, the handle attached to the board is so far from the food that the individual operating it cannot grab the food itself. Moreover, the board instantly rolls back when the handle is released, moving the food out of reach again, which guarantees that only the other members of the group present are able to get at the snack. In this way, the researchers ensure that the animal operating the handle acts purely altruistically. 

For the comparative behavior study with children, an analogous test apparatus was constructed, which was enclosed in a Plexiglas box and could be operated from outside by the children.

Contacts:
Dr. Judith Burkart
Anthropological Institute & Museum, University of Zürich
Winterthurerstrasse 190
CH-8057 Zürich
Switzerland
Email: Judith.burkart@aim.uzh.ch
Phone: +41 44 635 54 02/ +41 76 341 95 67

Weitere Informationen:

http://www.mediadesk.uzh.ch

Nathalie Huber | Universität Zürich

Further reports about: ancestors cognitive cooperative primate primates species spontaneous

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht At last, butterflies get a bigger, better evolutionary tree
16.02.2018 | Florida Museum of Natural History

nachricht New treatment strategies for chronic kidney disease from the animal kingdom
16.02.2018 | Veterinärmedizinische Universität Wien

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Demonstration of a single molecule piezoelectric effect

Breakthrough provides a new concept of the design of molecular motors, sensors and electricity generators at nanoscale

Researchers from the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry of the CAS (IOCB Prague), Institute of Physics of the CAS (IP CAS) and Palacký University...

Im Focus: Hybrid optics bring color imaging using ultrathin metalenses into focus

For photographers and scientists, lenses are lifesavers. They reflect and refract light, making possible the imaging systems that drive discovery through the microscope and preserve history through cameras.

But today's glass-based lenses are bulky and resist miniaturization. Next-generation technologies, such as ultrathin cameras or tiny microscopes, require...

Im Focus: Stem cell divisions in the adult brain seen for the first time

Scientists from the University of Zurich have succeeded for the first time in tracking individual stem cells and their neuronal progeny over months within the intact adult brain. This study sheds light on how new neurons are produced throughout life.

The generation of new nerve cells was once thought to taper off at the end of embryonic development. However, recent research has shown that the adult brain...

Im Focus: Interference as a new method for cooling quantum devices

Theoretical physicists propose to use negative interference to control heat flow in quantum devices. Study published in Physical Review Letters

Quantum computer parts are sensitive and need to be cooled to very low temperatures. Their tiny size makes them particularly susceptible to a temperature...

Im Focus: Autonomous 3D scanner supports individual manufacturing processes

Let’s say the armrest is broken in your vintage car. As things stand, you would need a lot of luck and persistence to find the right spare part. But in the world of Industrie 4.0 and production with batch sizes of one, you can simply scan the armrest and print it out. This is made possible by the first ever 3D scanner capable of working autonomously and in real time. The autonomous scanning system will be on display at the Hannover Messe Preview on February 6 and at the Hannover Messe proper from April 23 to 27, 2018 (Hall 6, Booth A30).

Part of the charm of vintage cars is that they stopped making them long ago, so it is special when you do see one out on the roads. If something breaks or...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

2nd International Conference on High Temperature Shape Memory Alloys (HTSMAs)

15.02.2018 | Event News

Aachen DC Grid Summit 2018

13.02.2018 | Event News

How Global Climate Policy Can Learn from the Energy Transition

12.02.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

Fingerprints of quantum entanglement

16.02.2018 | Information Technology

'Living bandages': NUST MISIS scientists develop biocompatible anti-burn nanofibers

16.02.2018 | Health and Medicine

Hubble sees Neptune's mysterious shrinking storm

16.02.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>