Wednesday, December 5, 2007

'Tis the Season

The following abstract from an article in the Proceedings of the National Science Academy, “Other-regarding preferences in a non-human primate: Common marmosets provision food altruistically” by Judith M. Burkart, et al. serves to inform us about the biological origins of so-called “ethical” or “moral” conduct by us humans.

“Human cooperation is unparalleled in the animal world and rests on an altruistic concern for the welfare of genetically unrelated strangers. The evolutionary roots of human altruism, however, remain poorly understood. Recent evidence suggests a discontinuity between humans and other primates because individual chimpanzees do not spontaneously provide food to other group members, indicating a lack of concern for their welfare. Here, we demonstrate that common marmoset monkeys (Callithrix jacchus) do spontaneously provide food to nonreciprocating and genetically unrelated individuals, indicating that other-regarding preferences are not unique to humans and that their evolution did not require advanced cognitive abilities such as theory of mind. Because humans and marmosets are cooperative breeders and the only two primate taxa in which such unsolicited prosociality has been found, we conclude that these prosocial predispositions may emanate from cooperative breeding.”

Marmosets are cute, little South American monkeys. Young marmosets are reared by both parents (cooperative breeding). The only other primates that engage in “cooperative breeding” are us people. What the research suggests is that the human proclivity to “good deeds,” especially hawked by Christians during the holiday season is a by-product of cooperative breeding. That is to say, the genetically based behavioral changes that led to both parents, male and female looking after their young, also led to an extension of that rearing behavior beyond the confines of the immediate “nuclear family.” The “Golden Rule” is thus a biological imperative of our socio-sexual community structure. That’s why it’s so universal amongst humans. So happy solstice days and give to the Salvation Army bell-ringers like a good marmoset should.

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