Humanity in Animals

Humanity in Animals

The Evolution of Empathy, Altruism, and Even the Soul

Illustration Credit: Best Friend by Anna Magrudeer

Capt. Stansbury found on a salt lake in Utah an old and completely blind pelican, which was very fat, and must have been well fed for a long time by his companions. […] Mr. Blyth, as he informs me, saw Indian crows feeding two or three of their companions which were blind; and I have heard of an analogous case with the domestic cock. I have myself seen a dog, who never passed a cat who lay sick in a basket, and was a great friend of his, without giving her a few licks with his tongue, the surest sign of kind feeling in a dog. […] Besides love and sympathy, animals exhibit other qualities connected with the social instincts, which in us would be called moral.”

Thus wrote Charles Darwin in the nineteenth century. If we observe that 150 years earlier, Descartes and Malebranche declared confidently that animals were nothing more than “unconscious automatons, possessing neither thought, nor sensitivity, nor mental life of any kind,” we can see how far we had come by Darwin’s time.

Since then, studies have emerged that shed light on the wealth of animals’ mental lives. As Jane Goodall, Frans de Waal, and many other ethologists have observed, the basic signals we use to express pain, fear, anger, love, joy, surprise, impatience, boredom, sexual excitement, and many other mental and emotional states are not unique to our species.

After 40 years devoted to studying animal behavior, mainly among the great apes, one of the preeminent primatologists of our time, Frans de Waal, thinks that the focal point of his research is no longer to prove the existence of empathy among animals, but to study how it is expressed. Yet the existence of animal empathy has long been misunderstood. De Waal tells about hearing a renowned psychologist state that animals cooperated occasionally, but unfailingly gave priority to their own survival. And as if to prove once and for all the correctness of his point of view, he concluded: “An ape will never jump into a lake to save another.”

Hearing this statement, Frans de Waal remembered Washoe, a female chimpanzee who, upon hearing cries of distress from a female friend, raced across two electric wires to reach her companion, who was struggling desperately in a moat. Wading in the slippery mud at the edge, Washoe managed to grasp her friend’s outstretched hand and pull her to dry land. This is no minor feat, for chimpanzees do not know how to swim and are overcome with panic as soon as water reaches their knees. Fear of water can only be overcome by a powerful motivation; explanations involving self-interested calculations like “if I help her now, she’ll help me later” don’t work in this case. Only a spontaneous altruistic impulse can incite someone to abandon all caution. On other occasions, chimpanzees have been observed drowning while trying to help their young who had fallen in the water.

Animals associate with each other in various, more or less complex, ways, from simple gregariousness—the fact of being attracted by the company of their fellows—to stages of complex social organization where adults cooperate in taking care of the young, feeding them, and protecting them. As the complexity and diversity of interactions increase, it becomes useful to animals to take into account the behavior of their fellows with as much exactitude as possible. This tendency culminates with the ability to perceive the intentions of the other and to imagine what the other is thinking and feeling. That is how empathy is born.

Before we question the “theory of mind”—the ability, mentally, to take the place of the other in order to understand the other’s intentions or needs—let’s first consider a series of classic stories of animal behaviors that illustrate their aptitude for empathy.

Mutual Aid

A kennel guard was completely surprised one morning when he saw that three dogs had gotten out of their cage and had amply refreshed themselves in the kitchens. After that, he made sure the cages were closed, but the same scenario occurred again the next night. Intrigued, he hid in a corner of the kennel to see what was happening. Soon after the employees had left, he saw one of the dogs open the outer latch of his cage by passing his paw through the bars, which already was an impressive feat. But—surprise—instead of rushing to the kitchens, the animal first went to open the cages of two other dogs who were his friends, and only then did he and his eager companions head for the food.


Lucy was a female chimpanzee raised by humans, and for company, she was given a kitten. The first meeting was not a success. Lucy, obviously annoyed, pushed the kitten over and even tried to bite her. The second meeting wasn’t much better but, during the third meeting, Lucy kept her calm. The kitten then began to follow her everywhere and, after half an hour, the female chimpanzee, forgetting her earlier reservations, took the kitten in her hands, kissed it, and completely changed her attitude. Very quickly, the two became inseparable. Lucy groomed the cat, rocked her in her arms, made her a little nest, and protected her from humans. The kitten was not inclined to climb up Lucy’s flanks, as young chimpanzees do, but readily jumped onto her back and stayed there while Lucy moved. Or else Lucy would carry her in the palm of her hand.

The Joy of Reunion

Cynthia Moss recounts the reunion of two elephant herds that had spotted each other from afar (aside from trumpeting, elephants also communicate over long distances by very low frequency sounds, inaudible to the human ear). They began trumpeting as soon as they were half a kilometer away from each other, guiding each other by these calls and showing signs of cheerfulness. When they were finally within sight of each other, they began running and trumpeting loudly. The two matriarchs went straight for each other, crossing tusks, entwining their trunks, flapping their ears and rubbing against each other. All the other elephants followed suit.

The Sadness of Separation

J.Y. Henderson, who was a veterinarian in a circus for years, recounts the example of two horses who had long shared the same stable. When one of them died, the other began moaning constantly. He barely slept or ate. They tried to put him with other horses, give him special care, and improve his diet. All to no avail—he died within two months, and the veterinarian couldn’t diagnose any specific physical illness.

Targeted Empathy

In The Age of Empathy, de Waal reported, “At our primate center, we have an old female, Peony, who spends her days with other chimpanzees in a large outdoor enclosure. On bad days, when her arthritis is flaring up, she has great trouble walking and climbing. But other females help her out. For example, Peony is huffing and puffing to get up into the climbing frame in which several apes have gathered for a grooming session. An unrelated younger female moves behind her, places both hands on her ample behind, and pushes her up with quite a bit of effort, until Peony has joined the rest.


One evening, Wolfgang Köhler, a pioneer in primatology, saw that two chimpanzees had been forgotten outside under a driving rain. He hurried to their rescue, managed to open the locked door of their shelter, and stood aside to let them regain their warm, dry bed as quickly as possible. But, even though the rain continued to stream over the bodies of the chimpanzees chilled to the bone, and even as they continued to show their unhappiness and impatience, before retreating to the comfort of their shelter they turned to Köhler and embraced him, one around his chest and the other around his legs. It was only after thus exuberantly showing their appreciation that they moved to the welcoming straw of the shelter.


John Lilly reports the example of a young dolphin off the coast of the Antilles who had wandered away from his group. He was attacked by three sharks and uttered distress cries. Immediately, the adults in the pod who, until then, had been conversing with each other, fell silent and swam quickly toward the young dolphin in danger. Having reached the spot like torpedoes, they crashed full-speed (60 kilometers per hour) into the sharks, who were stunned and driven to escape into the depths of the sea. During this time, the females took care of the young wounded dolphin, who could no longer surface in order to breathe. Two of the females lifted him by swimming beneath him, until his head emerged from the water. From time to time, other females took over so the first pair could breathe, too.

Mutual Aid Among Different Species

In New Zealand, four swimmers were suddenly surrounded by a band of dolphins who were swimming around them in ever-tighter circles, like a sheepdog herding its sheep. When one of the swimmers tried to break away, two dolphins forced him to rejoin the group. Soon after, one of the swimmers saw a great white shark pass by and realized that the dolphins had been preventing them from swimming into harm’s way. The dolphins didn’t let their charges go until 40 minutes later.


Consoling behavior has been observed among the great apes and the Canidae (dogs, wolves), and also among members of the crow family. Teresa Romero and her colleagues have recorded over 3,000 cases among chimpanzees. It emerges from their study that this behavior is more frequent among individuals who are socially close, and is more usually observed among females than males (with the exception, however, of dominant males, who are generous with acts of consolation, which helps reinforce the social cohesion of the group).


The expression of mourning is particularly remarkable among elephants. When one of them is about to die, his fellows press around him and try to lift him up, sometimes even to feed him. Then, if they see that he has died, they go in search of branches, which they then place on and around his body, sometimes covering it up. The herd also performs rituals: Elephants sometimes arrange themselves in a circle around the corpse, heads facing outward, or file one by one past the corpse, each one touching him with his trunk or foot, and pausing in front of him before making room for the next one in line. One can’t help but be reminded of the ritual of human funerals during which everyone takes turns placing a flower on the coffin. When the herd finally moves away, if the dead elephant was young, the mother often remains behind for a while and, when she has rejoined the herd, she shows signs of dejection for several days, walking behind all the others.


In The Chimpanzees of Gombe, Jane Goodall describes how a 12-year-old chimpanzee adopted a three-month-old orphan, thus saving his life. Christophe Boesch and his colleagues observed frequent adoptions among chimpanzees in the Taï Forest in eastern Africa. Out of the 36 young who lost their mothers, 18 were adopted. It is remarkable to note that, among those 18, half were adopted by males, including one by his own father, the others having no direct connection with their protégé. Usually the males do not associate with any particular female, and generally don’t take care of their offspring. But the adoptive fathers carry the orphans on their backs during their daily journeys (an average of five miles a day) and share their food for years, which represents a considerable investment in the survival of the adopted chimpanzee.

The Transmission of Social Cultures

The chimpanzees of neighboring regions in Africa have developed grooming styles that differ from one group to another, while among the orangutans of Sumatra, it is the tools used that vary according to the region. These variations are not due to the influence of the ecological milieus, but to the diversification of social learning. In a few weeks, entire communities of monkeys, birds, dolphins, whales, wolves, and bears, to mention only a few, can adopt a new habit “discovered” by one of their members. The example is often cited of titmice in England who, a few decades ago, began piercing the aluminum caps of bottles of milk to peck at the cream floating on the surface. Over a few weeks, this behavior spread throughout the entire country. The elaborate mourning of elephants mentioned above belongs to what humans regard as a culture.

Knowing What Others Are Thinking

Thomas Bugnyar has observed that when a raven approaches a food cache, he looks to see who is nearby. If he sees a fellow raven who might have noticed him storing the food, he hurries to the hiding place to be sure of recovering the booty before the other raven can. If he sees only individuals whom he knows are ignorant of where the hiding place is, he takes his time. So in this case there is an awareness of what the other knows or does not know.

Gaming The System

At the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, Mississippi, the dolphin trainers had the idea of recruiting the dolphins to help clean the pool. It wasn’t long before the dolphins understood that they could exchange a piece of plastic or cardboard for a fish, and the pool soon became immaculate. But Kelly, a female, developed a stratagem to increase the yield: When she found a large piece of trash—a newspaper or a cardboard box—instead of exchanging it right away for a fish, she hid it in a rocky crevice at the bottom of the pool, then shredded it into small pieces, which she carried one after the other to her instructor to exchange for fish. A good investment that implies the ability to postpone gratification and to understand that each fragment has the same value as the whole.

Anthropomorphism or Anthropocentrism?

To this day, a number of academics still refuse to use terms for animals that refer to mental states like anger, fear, suffering, affection, joy, or any other emotion similar to our own. Bernard Rollin, professor of philosophy and animal sciences at Colorado State University, explains that researchers, in their effort not to use terms for animals that describe human emotions, speak not of fear but of “retreat behavior”; they don’t describe the “suffering” of a rat placed on a burning piece of metal, but simply count the “number of its leaps or convulsions”; they don’t speak of cries or moans of pain, but of “vocalizations.” The vocabulary of common sense is replaced by a jargon that stems more from denial than from scientific objectivity.

In the West, many cultural factors contribute to this anthropocentrism; in it we can find remnants of Judeo-Christian ideology, in which only man possesses a soul; the scorn of seventeenth-century thinkers like Descartes and Malebranche, for whom animals were only “flesh-and-blood automatons”; and, in our time, the chauvinistic and prideful view that adding mankind to the continuity of the evolution of animals is an insult to human dignity and its immeasurable superiority.

There is no doubt another reason why many of us stubbornly cling to the idea of a definitive boundary between humans and animals. If we acknowledged that animals are not basically different from us, we could no longer treat them like instruments for our own pleasure. The following statement made by a researcher to Bernard Rollin testifies to this: “It makes my job as a researcher a hell of a lot easier if I just act as if animals have no awareness.”

The realization that all sentient beings, from the simplest to the most complex, are part of an evolving continuum, and that there is no basic rupture between the different degrees of their evolution, should naturally lead us to respect other species and to use our superior intelligence not to profit from them as if they were simple instruments in the service of our well-being, but to promote their well-being at the same time as our own.

Do You Know People Who Would Fail This Chimp Test?

Victoria Horner and her colleagues placed two chimpanzees in neighboring cages where each could easily observe the behavior and reactions of the other. One of the two animals had 30 plastic chips in a pot: 15 blue ones and 15 red ones. Outside the cages, in full view of the two chimpanzees, was a tray on which two bowls of food were placed. The chimpanzee who had the chips was trained beforehand to exchange chips for food. But this time, if he gave a blue chip, he’d be the only one to eat, and if he gave a red chip, the food would be distributed to both chimpanzees.

In the beginning, the one who had the chips gave them at random, but soon the two chimpanzees realized that with the “selfish” chips, only the chip-giver chimpanzee would feast. In this case, the chimpanzee who received nothing showed his disappointment and appealed to his colleague with cries and body language. The experiment showed that most of the chip-owner chimpanzees ended up choosing mostly the “altruistic” chips.

One might think that the first chimpanzee made this choice not by altruism, but in order to be able to eat calmly, without having to put up with a frantic companion expressing his disapproval noisily when the chosen chip brought him nothing. But if the fact of attracting the attention of the chip-owner clearly influenced the choice of the latter, on the other hand, when the frustrated chimpanzee expressed his desire too vehemently (by spitting at the former, aggressively passing his fingers through the bars, shaking the cage, etc.), the other chose the “altruistic” chips less often, as if these intemperate demands made him unwilling to share with his fellow. It was the moderate reactions, the ones that seemed simply to have the aim of attracting the other’s attention without harassing him, that led to the largest number of prosocial choices.

Do You Need an Idea of Self to Have an Idea of the Other?

We know, in fact, that human children begin to display empathy between 18 and 24 months, about the time they begin to recognize themselves in the mirror. The classic test consists of making a red mark on the child’s forehead without him noticing. When he recognizes himself in the mirror, he touches the red spot and usually tries to erase it. Since there aren’t any mirrors in the jungle or the ocean, it is all the more remarkable that many animals have passed this mirror test. The first were the great apes, as the psychologist and evolutionary specialist Gordon Gallup showed in 1970, followed by dolphins, elephants, and magpies.

In 1999, a team of neuroscientists noticed that very particular neurons, the von Economo neurons (VENs), which are spindle-shaped, were, out of the 28 families of primates, present only among humans and the four species of great apes. These are precisely the species that passed the mirror test. Later on, the presence of VENs was also discovered among whales, dolphins, and elephants.

There are correlations, then, between recognizing oneself in the mirror, the presence of VENs, and an advanced capacity for empathy. Researchers are in agreement, however, that empathy can take many different forms, and that the ability to recognize oneself in a mirror is not a necessary precondition for understanding oneself and others.

Matthieu Ricard is a renowned Buddhist monk and international best-selling author. This excerpt was adapted from his new book, Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. Copyright (c) 2015 by Matthieu Ricard. All rights reserved.

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