Can I Give You A Hand?

Many studies have been done that show how one member of a species reacts to another of the same species and these indicate that many species show empathy or, in some cases, altruism. Of course these are all social animals, so it doesn’t seem very surprising that a member of a group would be well aware of what its colleagues are up too.

Cooperation and awareness are key requirements of a social group that benefits from being in a group over and above being a smaller part of the general target for predators. However, aiding a colleague with no expectation other than they may be paying it forward, so to speak is indicative of a sophisticated cognitive process that is worthy of study.

Yamamoto et al studied mother chimpanzees and their offspring helping each other on request and wrote up the work for this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (1). With this experiment, mother and offspring were in different rooms with a pass through. In one room was a drink that needed a straw to get at the fruit juice. The other room had a selection of seven different ‘tools,’ one of which was a straw.

The chimps with the tools were good at finding the straw and handing it over when requested. However when the drink was hidden from the tool stockiest, they tended to hand out the wrong tool. A walking stick was a favorite, but it wouldn't help with drinking juice.

The general conclusions from the study were that chimpanzees will help when requested, but only when requested. They are quite happy to watch the other struggle if not asked to help. Maybe that’s not that surprising when we remember how closely our DNA tells us we are related.

However, like us, when asked they will often step up to the plate and hand out tools. Unfortunately, they don’t have our language skills and the helper has to see what the problem is if they are going to be of any use.


Leave a Reply