Research in the broad field called animal behavior is continually showing extremely interesting results that challenge human uniqueness. Of course, this is not to say that we and other animals are not unique in some aspects of behavior. However, when we pride ourselves, for example, of being unique in displaying different forms of cooperation, detailed comparative research clearly shows we surely are not alone in this arena.
I just learned of a study published by Malini Suchak and her colleagues called "How chimpanzees cooperate in a competitive world," published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. A concise summary of this study can be seen in an essay titled "Chimpanzees choose cooperation over competition: Study challenges distinctiveness of human cooperation" where we read, "When given a choice between cooperating or competing, chimpanzees choose to cooperate five times more frequently, Yerkes National Primate Research Center researchers have found. This, the researchers say, challenges the perceptions humans are unique in our ability to cooperate and chimpanzees are overly competitive, and suggests the roots of human cooperation are shared with other primates."
Dr. Suchak and her colleagues summarize the significance of their study as follows:
Competitive tendencies may make it hard for members of a group to cooperate with each other. Humans use many different “enforcement” strategies to keep competition in check and favor cooperation. To test whether one of our closest relatives uses similar strategies, we gave a group of chimpanzees a cooperative problem that required joint action by two or three individuals. The open-group set-up allowed the chimpanzees a choice between cooperation and competitive behavior like freeloading. The chimpanzees used a combination of partner choice and punishment of competitive individuals to reduce competition. In the end, cooperation won. Our results suggest that the roots of human cooperation are shared with other primates.
Their abstract reads:
Our species is routinely depicted as unique in its ability to achieve cooperation, whereas our closest relative, the chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes), is often characterized as overly competitive. Human cooperation is assisted by the cost attached to competitive tendencies through enforcement mechanisms, such as punishment and partner choice. To examine if chimpanzees possess the same ability to mitigate competition, we set up a cooperative task in the presence of the entire group of 11 adults, which required two or three individuals to pull jointly to receive rewards. This open-group set-up provided ample opportunity for competition (e.g., freeloading, displacements) and aggression. Despite this unique set-up and initial competitiveness, cooperation prevailed in the end, being at least five times as common as competition. The chimpanzees performed 3,565 cooperative acts while using a variety of enforcement mechanisms to overcome competition and freeloading, as measured by (attempted) thefts of rewards. These mechanisms included direct protest by the target, third-party punishment in which dominant individuals intervened against freeloaders, and partner choice. There was a marked difference between freeloading and displacement; freeloading tended to elicit withdrawal and third-party interventions, whereas displacements were met with a higher rate of direct retaliation. Humans have shown similar responses in controlled experiments, suggesting shared mechanisms across the primates to mitigate competition for the sake of cooperation.
Many species display various forms of cooperation
While the authors are correct in claiming, "the roots of human cooperation are shared with other primates," it should be noted that many non-primate species also show various forms of cooperation. Thus, not only are humans not unique in displaying cooperation, but neither too are non-human primates. Much comparative research on cooperation in a wide array of animals is summarized in a number of books including Cooperation among Animals: An Evolutionary Perspective, Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, Origins of Altruism and Cooperation, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, and Beastly Morality: Animals as Ethical Agents. Spotted hyenas, for example, also display complex forms of cooperation, as do various birds.
I've also written on comparative research in cooperative behavior in a number of essays, for example, "Humanlike Violence Is Not Seen In Other Animals," in which I write about the seminal research of the late Robert Sussman and his colleagues concerning the evolution of cooperative behavior (please also see the links included therein). These researchers reported in 2005 in The American Journal of Physical Anthropology that for many nonhuman primates, more than 90 percent of their social interactions are affiliative rather than competitive or divisive (see also for an update on what we're learning about cooperation in other animals).
"The natural world is full of cooperation, from ants to killer whales"
Along these lines, renowned primatologist Dr. Frans de Waal, who also was involved in this study about which this essay is concerned, notes, "It has become a popular claim in the literature that human cooperation is unique. This is especially curious because the best ideas we have about the evolution of cooperation come straight from animal studies. The natural world is full of cooperation, from ants to killer whales. Our study is the first to show that our closest relatives know very well how to discourage competition and freeloading. Cooperation wins!"
Please stay tuned for more on the fascinating cognitive and emotional lives of the fascinating animals with whom we share our magnificent world. We have so much to learn concerning the cognitive and emotional capacities we share with other animals.
Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in early 2017.