Chimps not so selfish
20 June 2008
Study lays groundwork for proving animal empathy
Compared to their sex-mad, peace-loving bonobo counterparts, chimpanzees are often seen as a scheming, war-mongering, and selfish species. As both apes are allegedly our closest relatives, together they are often depicted as representing the two extremes of human behaviour.
Orlaith Fraser, who will receive her PhD from LJMU's School of Biological Sciences in July 2008, has conducted research that shows chimpanzee behaviour is not as clear cut as previously thought. Her study is the first one to demonstrate the effects of consolation amongst chimpanzees.
In her paper, 'Stress reduction through consolation in chimpanzees', published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, Fraser analyses how the apes behave after a fight. Working with Dr Daniel Stahl of Kings College London and Filippo Aureli, LJMU's Professor of Animal Behaviour, she found that third-party chimpanzees will try to console the 'victim' of the fight by grooming, hugging and kissing.
Although this behaviour has been witnessed in chimpanzees since the 1970s, anthropologists previously believed that the motivation behind it was purely selfish - with the consoling chimp wanting to pre-empt further violence.
However, the study challenges this assumption. "If that was the case then there shouldn't be a calming effect from the consolation, rather, just a reduction of aggression," said co-author Professor Aureli, "I think it's much more likely that it is done for the benefit of the others rather than the third party."
Fraser, who successfully defended her PhD on conflict management in chimpanzees, said: "Unlike previous studies, this research demonstrates the link between consolation and stress reduction, showing the potential for empathy in chimpanzees as opposed to their more renowned aggressive behaviour."
Apes are the only primates to show consolation, and it has been speculated that this behaviour is perhaps equivalent to what in human children is called 'sympathetic concern'. One of the world's leading primatologists, Professor Frans de Waal, of Emory University in Atlanta, USA, said: "The behaviour of young children that falls under sympathetic concern (touching, hugging of distressed family members) is in fact identical to that of apes, and so the comparison is not far-fetched. The present study is significant in that it suggests that the function of this behaviour in chimpanzees is similar to humans, in that it comforts the other."
The allegedly telltale signs of nervousness in humans include scratching ourselves or hand-to-face movements. Similarly, when our simian cousins find themselves in stressful situations they often resort to self-grooming and self-scratching. Fraser and Professor Aureli found that after a fight, these actions occurred with increasing frequency, but when the non-aggressive chimp entered the fray, the agitated ape soon stopped their nervous movements.
Interestingly, the study also found that apes with mutually beneficial relationships will try to calm each other down. Professor Aureli explained: "It's what we call a valuable relationship - basically those animals that are good friends, not just individuals that spend a lot of time together or groom one another, but ones that actually have some value to one another. For example, they help one another in fights, tolerate one another around limited resources, share food, and collaborate."
One of the most controversial and divisive issues in anthropology today is whether or not animals can empathise. Fraser said that as well as altruistic behaviour, our closest evolutionary ancestors could potentially have an empathetic side. She said: "Showing the calming effect of consolation is one of the building blocks from which we can learn more about the emphatic abilities of animals."
Professor de Waal added that this study removes any previous doubt that consolation provides relief to distressed parties after conflict: "The evidence is compelling and makes it likely that consolation behaviour is indeed an expression of empathy."
'Stress reduction through consolation in chimpanzees' was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal on June 16 2008.