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 by instinct. Of this, twenty years ago and since then, numerous evidences have been provided of animals that learn from the environment and act flexibly.
But today, dualistic discourses continue to be given that drink from this simplistic idea, even within the academic world. They reduce animals to mere biological machines, whose behavior is determined solely by genes. According to this view, cooperation occurs only between related animals and, if an individual becomes 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 take care of 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, such as sea sponges or mussels, are likely just biological machines. And it is true that a large number of species lack the cognitive complexity and empathy necessary to perform certain altruistic actions. But it is proven that humans are not the only ones on the planet who help and care for those most in need. In particular, chimpanzees, elephants and cetaceans stand out for this behavior.
In Gabon, chimpanzees apply insects to heal open wounds of other individuals and, in Gombe, they have been seen using leaves to clean them. Chimpanzees living in the Taï forest adapt their behavior to the specific needs of the sick. For example, dominant males prevent them from being disturbed by other members of the group and everyone waits for the injured to start walking before resuming the march. This care usually occurs between related individuals, but not always.
In 2011, one of the studies was published that recounts in more detail a case of help in 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. In this community of chimpanzees, other males had been observed carrying young, but never for so long. The teenager was not related to the mother.
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Finally, there are numerous reports of chimpanzees adopting orphaned infants. As in humans, adoption in chimpanzees involves the regular provision of maternal care, such as transportation, food distribution, defense, and grooming. In the Taï forest, adoptions by unrelated members of the group, such as young females who are 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 provide appropriate help in a flexible way.
A remarkable number of stories are known about elephants assisting fellow human beings in need. In most cases, these are mothers and sisters trying to lift a sick calf, help it cross a river or rescue it from the mud. However, there are also occasions when assistance occurs between unrelated and even unknown individuals.
An article published in 2006 chronicles in detail the events surrounding the fainting and subsequent death of a matriarch named Eleonor. Two minutes after she fell to the ground, another matriarch outside the family quickly approached with some degree of excitement. First he sniffed and touched the body with his trunk and foot and then, with his fangs, he 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 gets messed up when they throw a dart at an elephant. As Harthoorn described in 1970, "suddenly there was an indescribable tumult of screaming beasts and trumpeters. The immobilized young animal was repeatedly lifted on the tusks of the large old cows until, after two hours, it began to stand up and was finally led into the forest."
A recent study proposes that elephants, like humans, have self-domesticated. Therefore, although our evolutionary lineages diverged when the first placental mammals emerged, we share many characteristics: marked prosocial behavior, reduced aggressiveness, a long youth or a complex communication system.
Cetaceans are characterized by high cognitive and communicative 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, flexibly adapting their help to each situation:
They release individuals that are trapped in fishing nets, hold the sick close to the surface correctly to prevent them from drowning, stay close to a female in labor, stand between a boat and an injured congener to prevent them from colliding and even cooperate to form a raft that transports a paralyzed individual.
Anecdotes of cetaceans helping other species have also been reported. On one occasion, two dolphins were observed taking turns holding a newborn porpoise on 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 also not accurate 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 it is known the case of a bottlenose dolphin that, instead of helping a female that emitted 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.
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