There are certain ideas that take root in society. No matter how many times science disproves them, they continue to permeate for decades. I remember when I went to school and the teacher explained to us that human beings are rational and animals act on instinct. From this, twenty years ago and since then, they have contributed numerous evidences of animals that learn from the environment and act flexibly.
But today, dualistic discourses that drink from this simplistic idea continue to be given, even within the academic world. They reduce animals to mere biological machines, whose behavior is determined solely by genes. According to this vision, cooperation occurs only between related animals and, if an individual falls ill, it is abandoned by the rest of the group, because that is how natural selection works. In contrast, human beings are rational beings, aware of our actions. We share values that make us care for injured individuals, even if we have no relationship with them.
These types of messages, easy to understand, make us feel special and spread like a virus. Complex answers are less popular but often more accurate. With the term “animal” we are referring to more than a million different species. Many of them, like sea sponges or mussels, are probably just biological machines. And it is true that large numbers of species lack the cognitive complexity and empathy to perform certain altruistic actions. But it has been shown that humans are not the only ones on the planet who help and care for those most in need. Especially chimpanzees, elephants and cetaceans stand out for this behavior.
In Gabon, chimpanzees apply insects to heal open wounds of other individuals and, at Gombe, they have been seen using leaves to clean them. Chimpanzees living in the Taï jungle adapt their behavior to the specific needs of patients. For example, the dominant males avoid being disturbed by other members of the group and all wait for the injured to start walking before they resume the march. This care usually occurs between related individuals, but not always.
In 2011, it was published one of the studies which recounts in more detail a case of helping chimpanzees in the wild. For two days, a teenager was observed helping an injured female carry her baby. The mother could not keep up with the rest of the group and stopped frequently, leaving the infant on the ground each time. The young male would then pick up the baby and carry it for much of the journey. Other males had been observed carrying young in this chimpanzee community, but never for as long. The teenager was not related to his mother.
Finally, there are numerous reports of chimpanzees that adopt orphaned infants. As in humans, adoption in chimpanzees involves the regular provision of maternal care, such as transportation, food delivery, defense, and grooming. In the Taï forest, adoptions by unrelated members of the group, such as young female friends of the deceased mother, are common.
In all these cases, prosocial behavior improved the situation of those in need, accelerating their healing, allowing them to keep up with the group or survive without a mother’s care. This means that chimpanzees are able to understand the situation of other individuals in distress and flexibly provide appropriate help.
They know each other remarkable number of stories about elephants assisting fellow humans in need. In most cases, these are mothers and sisters trying to pick up a sick calf, help it cross a river or rescue it from the mud. However, there are also occasions in which assistance occurs between unrelated individuals and even strangers.
An article published in 2006 It narrates in detail the events surrounding the collapse and subsequent death of a matriarch named Eleonor. Two minutes after she hit the ground, another matriarch from outside the family hurried over with some degree of excitement. She first sniffed and touched her body with her trunk and her foot and then, with her fangs, lifted Eleanor back to her feet. The matriarch died the next day and her body was visited by several different groups of elephants.
Veterinarians who work anesthetizing wild animals know very well what happens when they throw a dart at an elephant. As described Harthoorn in 1970, “suddenly there was an indescribable tumult of screaming and trumpeting beasts. The immobilized young animal was repeatedly lifted on the tusks of the big old cows until, after two hours, it began to rise and was finally driven into the forest.
A recent study proposes that elephants, like humans, have become self-domesticated. For this reason, despite the fact that our evolutionary lineages diverged when the first placental mammals emerged, we share many characteristics: marked prosocial behavior, reduced aggressiveness, long youth, or a complex communication system.
Cetaceans are characterized by high cognitive and communication abilities that allow them to create and maintain close social relationships. In particular, dolphins are known for their propensity to help others in different ways, adapting its help flexibly to each situation:
They free individuals that get caught in fishing nets, hold the sick near the surface correctly to prevent them from drowning, stay close to a calving female, stand between a boat and an injured congener to prevent them from colliding and they even cooperate to form a raft to transport a paralyzed individual.
Anecdotes of cetaceans helping other species. On one occasion, two dolphins were observed taking turns holding a newborn porpoise at the surface. Humpback whales harass orcas that are hunting other species, putting their own health at risk, as orcas often attack them when they try to interfere with their hunt.
It is likely that as we continue to observe wild animals, we will discover more altruistic behaviors in more species. However, it is not right to fall into the cliché that animals are better than people. Again, this is a simplistic idea that does not do justice to reality and separates us from nature. Chimpanzees also kill other individuals and there is a known case of a bottlenose dolphin that, instead of helping a female that was emitting distress signals, decided to abandon her.
Humans are one more animal among natural diversity. We are not better, worse or more special. Like everyone, we have unique peculiarities, but neither reason, nor empathy, nor altruism belong only to us.
#animals #care #relatives