The Little Rock Zoo

.The Little Rock Zoo needs to step up and care for the animals better! Please read the several artciles here with deaths, sickness and a bald chimp!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Chimpanzees Have Empathy

The man in beast

BonoboAFP.jpgEmpathy, intuitive understanding of another’s feelings, is not an ability unique to humans.

Adherents of the ‘Intelligent Design’ movement assume that morality was granted to man by God’s grace and that Christian believers were at the front of the distribution queue. This idea was expressed by Intelligent Design adherent Henk Jochemsen in a 2005 book: “For sociobiology and evolutionary ethics, it is irrefutable that altruistic behaviour is biologically perverse and pathological, because it goes against human nature. But in most cultures and major religions, true altruistic behaviour is presented as the higher ideal.”

Anyone familiar with the work of Darwin and biologist Frans de Waal knows that this is nonsense. A dead-end idea. Darwin described in detail how our moral understanding derives from social instincts that contribute significantly to the survival of the group. This is evident in many species that have to rely on collaboration, like primates, elephants and wolves.


Experiencing empathy, knowing how someone else feels, is the basis for all moral acts. I have watched in amazement as our dog empathised with his friend, our daughter’s dog, after it had undergone an operation on his paw. Normally, they rushed around, provoking each other to wild games without end. But after the operation, our dog sniffed the other dog and remained quietly standing, staring with a concentrated look, while making peeping sounds now and again to show that he was empathising with the other’s fate. Then he very carefully began to lick the other dog’s operated paw.

If an elephant is hit by a bullet or an anaesthetic dart, the others trumpet loudly and try to help the victim up again with their trunks or by pushing against him, sometimes for hours. Help is also offered by other elephants when one is wounded accidentally, even if they are not from the same herd. Rooks seek comfort from their lifelong mates after a conflict in the colony. They act affectionate, share some food, smooth each other’s feathers and lovingly hold the other’s beak, as if they are kissing.

There are many marvellous examples of animals exhibiting true moral behaviour. In a zoo, an old, sick ape was added to a group. Because he did not understand what the keepers wanted him to do, the bonobos led him by the hand to the correct place. And when he got lost and started crying in distress, the others came to him, calmed him down and brought him back to the group. Just try to see that on the street in Amsterdam!

Moral sense

That primates have a moral sense is apparent in chimpanzees from the existence of companionship and the urge to care for a wounded fellow. Pure empathy must also have been the basis for a bonobo caring for a wounded bird. In 1966 the female gorilla Binti Jua rescued a 3-year-old boy who had fallen 6 meters into the primate enclosure in Chicago. Other species can also sacrifice themselves for humans. For example, a labrador dog in California sprang in front of his best friend and was thus bitten by a rattlesnake. Dolphins are known not only to free trapped fellows from nets, but also to save drowning humans. Empathy and altruism are aspects that form the key to human morality, but they have a long evolutionary history that is certainly not unique to man.

These few examples clearly show that the nanotechnologist, orthodox-Christian and prophet of the Dutch branch of the intelligent design movement, professor Cees Dekker, is wide of the mark when he claims morality as the exclusive domain of Christianity. He said in a 2006 interview: “Jesus said: love God above all others and your brother like yourself. That is a moral task, a law that is difficult to understand or to examine with natural science methods. And yet we can distinguish good from evil”. Intelligent design adherents apparently do not read the writings of the people they criticise. Thus, they do not have to conclude that religion did not invent the rules of morality, but simply adopted them after they had developed in the course of evolution in social animals, including man.


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