London, March 3: The first evidence that being a good samaritan is not a uniquely human trait, as most scientists thought, has been published.
There are many examples in the animal kingdom of individuals, whether ants or monkeys, that help their relatives.
However, only humans seem to help others to whom we are not related ' “out of the goodness of our hearts”.
But today, in the journal Science, two chimpanzee studies shed light on the science of cooperation and suggest that our closest relatives lend a hand in human-like ways.
In one, Felix Warneken and Dr Michael Tomasello of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, tested 18-month-old children and young chimpanzees to see if they offered help when the researchers carried out simple tasks, such as stacking books and reaching objects, such as a dropped clothes peg.
The infants seemed to understand their struggles, itself remarkable, and were eager to help with most tasks.
“The results were astonishing because these children already show helping behaviour,” said Warneken.
More remarkably, the chimpanzees were willing to help the humans reach an object, but they were less reliable helpers on other tasks.
“It has been claimed that chimpanzees act mainly for their own ends, but in our experiment, there was no reward and they still helped,” he said.
Evidence of how chimps understand that cooperation is helpful comes from a second study by Alicia Melis and colleagues, which shows that chimpanzees even choose “expert” chimps to help them.
The researchers devised a series of experiments where chimpanzees needed to recruit their peers to help them reach food on a platform. They seemed to keep track of their success with each potential partner and eventually chose collaborators who were more adept at retrieving the food.
“We’ve never seen this level of understanding during cooperation in any other animals except humans,” said Melis.