The evolutionary roots of human generosity

Felix Warneken

One of the most important issues in research on generosity and other prosocial behaviors is to determine the similarities and differences between humans and other animals: What aspects are actually unique to humans and what aspects have deeper evolutionary roots? To answer these kinds of questions, it is particularly informative to compare the behaviors of humans with that of our closest living evolutionary relative such as chimpanzees. In recent years, several research labs around the world have tested chimpanzees on their willingness to help and share with others, often coming to quite different conclusions. In the last two weeks, there were two events that might be a major step towards a synthesis of these findings. First, a recent dialogue among experts in animal behavior addressed these issues at an event organized by Boston University, soon to be broadcasted on the internet:

Second, a new publication by Alicia Melis and colleagues showed that chimpanzees are willing to help other conspecifics obtain food–at least when the conspecific clearly indicates a need for help: . This finding provides further evidence for the notion that chimpanzees have prosocial motivations, indicating that humans and chimpanzees share important psychological characteristics. However, humans are probably special in their tendency to help and give even in the absence of concrete cues from the beneficiary, even sympathizing with people one has never encountered before and donating resources anonymously.

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