Altruism in Animals


Maneka Gandhi


(Bihar Times) Have you seen pictures of tiger mothers suckling piglings , or monkeys defending dogs ? Someone has sent me the pictures he had taken of a hurt monkey on the road being protected by another monkey who stopped the traffic till the first one was picked up by the troop and taken to the side. I have a U Tube video of a Canadian seabird walking into a shop, stealing a packet of chips , pecking it open and then scattering it for her friends to eat. She does this every day and it’s the same brand each time.

Kindness is what makes the world turn around. When was the last time you helped someone without any expectations? But altruistic behaviour is common among animals. An altruistic animal is one that helps another without direct benefit to itself, be it a mother bear protecting her cubs against their hungry father or a bird giving an alarm call that warns other birds of a hawk.

Psychologists have found that a rat or monkey will slow its rate of pressing a lever for food if that lever also gives an electric shock to a nearby rat or monkey. Rats will take turns sitting on a platform so that others can feed without being interrupted by electric shock. Pigeons and mice cooperate in getting food.

Why do walruses adopt orphans? Why do dogs adopt the offspring of cats, other dogs, and even tigers? Altruism means that the animal loses something in helping – either energy or food or even a chance to save itself.  Why should wolves share their kill; or sparrows draw attention to themselves by issuing a warning call when they spot a hawk” ?  If a bird helps a breeding pair build its nest and feed its young, without breeding itself, then it would seem to be a loser in the struggle for life. While this individual is busy helping others, it is missing out on the opportunity to produce heirs of its own.  How, then, do evolutionists account for altruism in animals? Scientists ,say – “it is in their genes” !  Which simply means that animals are caring and kind by nature.

In group animals such as seals , if the young seal loses its parents , unrelated mothers will feed them.  Honeybees die defending the hive so that the babies of the nest may survive. Adult animals risk their life to distract potential predators away from their offspring decreasing their own chances of survival. Dolphins whales and porpoises help injured and sickly animals breathe by swimming beneath them for hours at a time.

Recent studies at The Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, show that monkeys, wolves and dolphins were more than willing to help other animals, including humans.
In one experiment done with chimps in Uganda, a chimp struggled to open a door locked by a chain. The researchers wanted to see if a second chimp would release the chain to help the first get food. The chimps in a position to help did just that. “The crucial thing here is they help without any expectation of being rewarded, because they don’t benefit from their helping,” researcher Felix Warneken explains.

The same pattern showed up in a similar experiment with chimpanzees and humans: When a human with whom they had no prior relationship struggled to reach a stick, the chimps handed it to the person even when it required effort.
Kookaburras, and many other group-living animals forgo their own chance to have offspring and help others rear their babies instead. Meerkat , mongoose-like animals from Africa will postpone meals to help with the baby-sitting, and will stay home so their family and friends can go out to supper. A monkey will take out parasites from an unrelated monkey or act a babysitter while the mother goes off to find food.  Wolves and wild dogs bring back food to members of the pack who have taken no part in the hunt.

The ultimate in altruism as I understand it is when a caged mammal mother eats her newborn young or a dog on the street kills her newborn infants. I can see the extreme stress and pain of the mother doing this to her children but I also see the determination that her children will not inherit the terrible life that she has had.

In certain spiders like the Japanese foliage spider the mother sacrifices herself for her young. Once the mother has laid her clutch of eggs and cared for them until they hatch, the mother surrenders her own body to her hatchlings for food. Before doing this she may even start a second brood of eggs which is never intended to hatch, but is laid as a food source for her hatchlings. Following this feast the hatchlings will molt and swarm over their mother and start to dine. She never attempts to fend off the brood, or launch a counter attack. Her body starts to liquify, giving her hatchlings a supply of food. The hump earwig does the same. In humans the number of mothers that will even let their children drink their milk is decreasing. How many humans would have children if it meant losing their own lives ?

 Researchers on altruistic behaviour among animals oppose the Darwinist concept of the "survival of the fittest” and say it is  "survival of the nicest" which is compatible with Darwin’s theory of evolution .

Vampire bats regularly regurgitate blood and donate it to other members of their group who have failed to feed that night. In numerous bird species, a breeding pair receives help in raising its young from other ‘helper’ birds, who protect the nest from predators and help to feed the fledglings. Vervet monkeys give alarm calls to warn fellow monkeys of the presence of predators, even though in doing so they attract attention to themselves, increasing their own chance of being attacked. In social insect colonies (ants, wasps, bees and termites), sterile workers devote their whole lives to caring for the queen, constructing and protecting the nest, foraging for food, and tending the larvae.

Even lowly bacteria are altruistic. Salmonella bacteria sacrifice themselves for the greater good. As they enter the digestive tract, it’s a hostile world as other bacteria have already dug themselves into good positions. So the salmonella ‘select’ one in six microbes as an advance group. As they dig into the intestinal tissues, they cause the human defence system to flood the tract with attacking white cells and kill all the other bacteria, so that colonization by the remaining salmonella can begin.
Does doing good make you feel good ? Neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health and LABS-D'Or Hospital Network published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA in October, 2006. They show that charity activated the mesolimbic reward pathway, the same part of the brain that lights up in response to food and sex and makes you feel wonderful!

 Altruism is the core virtue in all religions and cultures. Must you be mean to species that practice it so effortlessly without pretending to be of any religious faith ? Are you kind ?

To join the animal welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in


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