Presentation Title: The Origins of Human Altruistic Behavior: Evidence From Children and Chimpanzees

Abstract: There is much debate in primatology and comparative psychology about altruism in human and nonhuman primates. Several researchers claim that altruistic behaviors (such as helping another individual without immediate benefit to oneself) are unique to humans, emanating from a species-unique psychology and cultural practices. By contrast, chimpanzees are often thought to be guided solely by self-interest, lacking the motivation to act on behalf of others. However, I will report a series of experiments comparing altruistic helping in chimpanzees and human infants, demonstrating that chimpanzees help other individuals without immediate gain for themselves, even in novel situations. Chimpanzees thus seem to have some altruistic motivations and can help others in a flexible manner. This suggests the hypothesis that what distinguishes chimpanzees from humans is not so much a complete lack of altruistic tendencies, but the circumstances under which these acts are performed. I will thus argue that future research should identify (1) the factors that limit the range of altruistic behaviors in chimpanzees, as well as (2) the factors that might have contributed to sustain and amplify these basic forms in human evolution. Last but not least, I use this line of research as an example of how comparative studies can provide insight into the ontogenetic and phylogenetic origins of human behavior.


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