Professor Discusses the Root of Altruism

Felix Warneken, an assistant professor of psychology, discussed the question of whether human altruism is a product of biology or environmental conditions Tuesday evening in a seminar organized by the Harvard Society for Mind, Brain, and Behavior.

Scientists like Warneken try to understand whether the characteristic of cooperation is human-specific or shared by our nearest relatives. Biologically, humans are not so different from apes, Warneken said, though our social patterns greatly contrast.

Warneken said that many people like to believe that “humans are clever, apes are dumb.” He showed a video of a chimpanzee trying to get a peanut out of a skinny cylinder. The chimp, after failing to reach in, filled the tube with water and floated the peanut to the top. The video, Warneken said, shows that apes have the ability to problem solve in novel situations.

According to Warneken, children systematically outscore apes in tests of social cognition, such as those measuring understanding, imitation, and inferring from actions.

Yet in tests of physical cognition, he said, which measure the ability to determine the size, amount, or location of objects, children and apes achieved similar scores.

“So it’s not simply that we are smarter. The answer lies elsewhere,” he said.

Warneken also disputed the idea that altruism is due entirely to social norms, noting that it is a characteristic also exhibited by chimpanzees. He showed several videos to the audience, showing chimpanzees and one-year-olds responding situations asking them to assist in opening the door, to pick up a fallen object, or to find a lost spoon.

For both the humans and apes, the rate of helping was very high. The experiments involving children and apes controlled for many factors, he said, noting that rewards, parental presence or behavior, the novelty of the action, and opportunity costs did not influence the results. This, he said, proved that the helping was intrinsically motivated.

The altruism exhibited, he said, is rooted in the shared biology of humans and apes.

“Culture facilitates altruism, and, although it is important, it does not cause the cooperation itself,” he said.

“We try to get professors with interests related to the mind or the brain,” said Allison Gofman ’14, co-president of the Harvard Society for Mind, Brain, and Behavior. “And of course, the kids were adorable.”

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