Inborn altrusitic behavior in humans and primates

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I was sent the following news item in an email (thanks S):

Baby's helping hands

The text is given below (in the event the link breaks one day).


Public release date: 2-Mar-2006

Contact: Felix Warneken



Baby's helping hands

First evidence for altruistic behaviours in human infants and chimpanzees

Human infants at 18 month of age helped spontaneously in several of the tasks. Also, chimpanzees displayed similar helping behaviours, although only in easier tasks. These new findings show that rudimentary forms of altruistic behaviours are present in our closest evolutionary relatives. As recent findings by other researchers from the same institute show, these seem to be restricted to particular situations. (SCIENCE, March 3, 2006).  

Felix Warneken and Mike Tomasello found that children as young as 18 months willingly helped complete strangers. 'The results were astonishing because these children are so young - they still wear diapers and are barely able to use language,' says Warneken. 'But they already show helping behaviour.'  

Warneken performed various tasks like hanging clothes on a line, and would drop a clothes peg out of his reach. For the first 10 seconds he reached for the peg. In the next 10 seconds he also looked at the child. After 20 seconds he said 'my peg!'. But he never directly asked the child for help, and did not thank or reward the child if the peg was retrieved. Virtually all children helped at least once in these situations and in 84% of cases they helped during the first 10 seconds, before Warneken even made eye contact.  

'The children didn't fetch the peg automatically because in another part of the test I threw it on the ground deliberately and they didn't pick it up. They only gave it to me if they inferred that I needed the peg to complete my goal, in this case, hanging up the clothes.'  

In case picking up clothes pegs was something the children had experienced before, Warneken invented new and more complicated situations. One was a box with a flap to retrieve objects inside the box. Warneken accidentally dropped a spoon inside and pretended he didn't know about the flap. Again, the children only helped Warneken retrieve the spoon if he was struggling to get it, as opposed to when Warneken threw the spoon inside deliberately.  

Going to some effort to help someone, without any benefit to yourself, is called altruism. So far, only humans are proven altruists. We donate money to charity, we pay taxes and we help people we don't know. But never before has this ability been shown in children who are so young who haven't yet developed much in the way of language skills. The study shows that even infants without much socialization are willing and able to help spontaneously.  

But is helping unique to humans? A recent study by Jensen and colleagues [1] shows that chimpanzees only care about themselves when the goal is to retrieve food. However, chimpanzees might help in situations other than foraging. Therefore, Warneken conducted the same helping tasks also with human-raised chimpanzees. Although the chimpanzees didn't help in the more complex tasks, like the box experiment, they did help when their human caretaker was reaching for something.  

'This is the first experiment showing altruistic helping toward goals in any non human primate,' says Warneken. 'It's been claimed chimpanzees act mainly for their own ends, but in our experiment, there was no reward and they still helped.'  

Altruism in chimpanzees may mean our common ancestor already had rudimentary forms of helping behaviour before chimpanzees and humans split six million years ago.  

'People thought helping behaviour was unique to humans, but maybe chimps aren't as different as we thought,' says Warneken with a smile. 'Perhaps there was a tiny bit of altruism in our evolutionary ancestor and it's grown so much stronger in modern humans.'  


What I found interesting about this behavior was that the "altruism" was strongly involved with empathy for the person's perceived intentions. If the adult (or human) was seen as purposely discarding the item, then no help was given.

I know this is a terrible word for Objectivists, but the results are coming in. It might be time to define two distinct types of altruistic behavior, one type being empathy with another person is goal-directed and the other type as imposition, then do the morality accordingly.


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William Scott Scherk just put up a similar mention on the Rebirth of Reason site here. For those interested, the links he provided in his post are given below:

Altruism 'in-built' in humans

By Helen Briggs

BBC News science reporter

Altruistic Helping in Human Infants and Young Chimpanzees

Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello

The full article above can be accessed at Sciencemag

(Scroll to the bottom - it's the last one. You have to register and pay to read it.)

132 further news reports on this (google news)


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Hi, Mike. Being a mom, one thing I find interesting that isn't mentioned in the article is that kids this age mimic a lot. They're learning. I've played games with my son at this age on the floor with him. If I just sat there, he wouldn't do anything. But as soon as I would start to do something such as reach for his toy or the remote to change the channel to something else, he would also start to reach for it. It's the same idea as when you teach your little ones at 8 or 9 months or ever younger to play peekaboo. Chris saw me do it at first and then immitated it.

It seems that by throwing the object down on the ground the child is going to stare at him in bewilderment. But if he starts to reach for the object, of course he is going to go for it because he's imitating him. I have a book called parenthood the first 5 years. It's like a handguide to give new parents an idea of what to expect, miles, stones, teething, and behaviors that are exhibited during the first 5 years and mimicking is addressed in this book even before the age of 12 months; such as playing peekaboo.

This is just a mom's perspective and what I've seen Chris do while growing up.

Is it just me or did I miss something? I'll read it over again to make sure.

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Of course a child learns by mimicking adults. That is probably his first formal education method in life.

Where I understood some test controls to be different, however, is that the child was put around a stranger, not a familiar adult.

How I personally interpret this (and this is not based on scientific evidence, merely my own reflections) is that the urge to establish goals and complete them is so strong in humans that it "bubbles over" when a stranger is seen trying to accomplish something.


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Hi, Mike.

Being a mom and watching my son, even on the playground with kids he does not know, he will mimic them. They are doing it so he does it as well.

What I found interesting is that in these tests it seems, no action was attempted on the part of the infant when the stranger wasn't encouraging action on the infant's part. The only time he attempts to "help" is when he is obersving another performing an action. I've done this with other kids I didn't know. Such as meeting a friend's kids for the first time. Like in play groups or play dates. Especially with autistic kids such as my son, they encourage play dates, etc., with other kids heavily. When Chris was dxd, I was given tons of paper work on places that I could go to meet other parents of autistic kids to help form a support group Becuase depending on severity of the child, it can be very difficult. Being a new parent with a "normal" kid that is compliant, conforms within the group is hard enough as it is. But when you get a child, that is very independent and individual and does not want to conform, it gets very challenging.

So being in playgroups with kids I did not know and my son being there, being around other parents I did not know, etc., they still mimicked others.

I also agree that human beings in order to survive have to set goals and have to perform those actions in order to attain that goal. Human beings have a strong need for certainity in their lives. When you've set a goal and work towards that goal and finally attain it, you've also attained certainty of your action. I hope that made sense. It makes sense in my head but I may have screwed it all up when writing it.

I like that you're not "blanking out" and accepting what someone else is telling you, what it is, and what their conclusions of it are. One of the things Ayn Rand talks about in her books which I'm going through now and going to put some excerpts up of introspection and other areas which I hope everyone will be able to get something from. This is where an individual asks himself a question, and then "blanks out" the answer and never THINKS for HIMSELF.

You didn't do this. You thought of a question and started to think about what the possible "cause" was, you didn't blank it out. You came to the conclusion that it was man's strong urge to set goals, action, and the completing it. I LIKE THAT A LOT

You just performed cause and effect as well as Law of Identity. Mike, you truly don't believe that your mind is futile. I've so many people like this and it is so sad to see. Instead of investigating it themselves, they rely on others to tell them the answer. They never stop to think, is the right or is the wrong?? Are there any contradictions, what other tests can be performed to rebutt it, etc. They accept it as is without ever thinking about it themselves. And these individuals truly believe that their minds are futile and that man is to doubt his own senses, his own mind, his own conclusions. He believes that is mind is impotent. They believe that the only way you can learn for yourself is by what others tell you. And you're not this way.....I LIKE THAT A LOT.

But I agree with you. I think there are too many factors that are not being taken into account; such as, mimicking, and goals, action, and certainty that is being performed by the infant. What I've noticed with kids be it a stranger or family, they watch very closely in an attempt to understand their surroundings better. Just because the infant shows very little verbal development, doesn't mean he's incapable of learning such as this article implies. His sense of sight is what will give him the most information about his surroundings. Then watching the events unfold before him he is able to understand it better, what the purpose is, what the cause is, why someone is doing something.

But the big question that is so prevelant in this article and is not answered and you addressed the question in the first post was "Why doesn't the infant do anything when the stranger is not showing him how to act or showing him to grab something?" When the stranger throws it down on the ground, etc., and performs no other action, the child is going to look at him and be like, what the hell was that, he would be completely bewildered on what the purpose of it was and wouldn't know the purpose (goal ) of what his action was. But when the stranger of course bends down and very slowly watching him for an entire 10 seconds, I mean come on now, of course the child is observing and will start to mimic in an attempt to figure out what he is doing and what his purpose is. So he will attempt to reach for the same thing.

So both of our minds right now just put a theory together to rebutt this supposed new evidence. A theory based on mimicking, goal, action, completion, and certainty.

For me, personally, I would need a LOT more evidence than that to make it conclusive and definitive.

Angie //;-))

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Narrowing of any kind would be good.

In my opinion, altruism is right behing mysticism in Objectivism as being one of those terms that is so broadly applied that it practically loses its


Lockstep O'ists have extremely narrow parameters even for benevolence- it's like going to bed with a woman who has a book full of rules, to the point that its not all that fun anymore.

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I went ahead and decided to post this in defense from a possible unprovoked attack.

I doubt it is because I haven't heard Rich's side or what his true intentions were when positing it. I didn't want to confront him out in the open re: it so I sent a PM to him. But after thinking about what was said and that it was possibly directed towards me, I doubt it, but just in case, this is what I sent him

"Hi, Rich.

I hope you weren't referring to me in regards to being a lockstep. If it was, that was a low blow. I don't know anything about you and you know very little about me.

But I will say this, once getting through her process such as I did at a very young age, sex is so much better and so much more exciting because you go in wanting to please yourself but at the same time pleasing your partner, you experiment and try anything, new discoveries. You go in celebrating life. My purpose going in is for my pleasure. But he also benefits. You know, I scratch your back, you scratch mine. Even though sex is the most profoundly selfish act, the trader principle is also applied in this situation.

So I hope that low blow wasn't directed towards me. I'm not trying to be a bitch but just possibly defending myself from an unprovoked attack.

I hope you weren't directing that at me. "

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Angie, I don't believe that Rich's comment was directed at you at all. He was making a general statement about some the boneheaded ideas being put forth in some circles and made a rather insensitive remark about women. I read it more as frustration expressed through humor than a jab at you or anyone else here. After you get to know know the people around here you will have more of a feel as to where they are coming from. Rich certainly has a way with words, and I usually get a kick out of the little blurbs he puts under his name.


trying to undo all the sensitivity training I got at work

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thank you, Kat. I figured that. I pretty much know it wasn't directed at me, yes, maybe frustration, and a little bit argumentative at times I've noticed. But obviously he is a passionate man, especially for the things he believes in.

But I understand and I have to laugh at it.....LOL.....because he is definitely a character. That's for sure.


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