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More Fun Than Fun: The Smart Animals That Helped Scientists Demystify Altruism

A new mindset among scientists is opening to the possibility of animal cognition beyond our expectations and our own capabilities. It is fair to say that animals are making us smart.

RAGHAVENDRA GADAGKAR: The inability to know how smart animals are can be a serious professional handicap for those of us who study animals and build theories to explain their behaviour. Our theories may be quite off the mark if our smartness limits our attribution of smartness to animals… You might say that the problem is with our theories. You are right, of course, but how to make our theories consistent with evolutionary logic on the one hand and with the observed niceties in the animal kingdom on the other?…

A major evolutionary paradox concerns why animals are nice to each other. Many of my humanist friends think that we scientists are depraved to think so. What they don’t understand is that our best theories have difficulty accommodating niceness. We love niceties for sure, but that’s not enough. Our understanding of animals from first principles and our mathematics about what evolution should make them do should predict niceness – but they often don’t.

In 1974, Robert Trivers proposed the theory of ‘reciprocal altruism‘, the simple idea that no act of helping or altruism is evolutionarily harmful to the actor as long as it is reciprocated at a future point in time. Theorists have since been busy imagining different kinds of reciprocity: direct reciprocity (‘I will help you because you helped me in the past’), indirect reciprocity (‘I will help you because I saw you help someone else’) and generalised reciprocity (‘I will help you because I am generally feeling good that someone helped me out’).

The idea of reciprocal altruism as a solution to the paradox of altruism toward strangers gathered dust for a long time. Why? Because most people were not smart enough to think that animals – let alone bacteria and plants – could be smart enough to keep track of who helped whom, when, and how much, and work out how much return help now is commensurate with past good deeds…

Over the last few decades, we are gradually becoming smart enough to know how smart animals are. In 1984, Gerald S. Wilkinson, then at the University of California, San Diego, provided the first clear example of direct reciprocity in the context of food-sharing among the vampire bats… Using field and laboratory experiments, Wilkinson showed that the vampire bats fulfilled all three required conditions for reciprocal altruism…

In the tropical oceans, many large fish have themselves, including the insides of their mouth, cleaned by smaller fish, which feed on dead skin and ectoparasites. This relationship between the cleaner and the client is a delicate one. Both parties can cheat: the cleaners can bite off some healthy tissue, and the clients can gobble up the cleaners, but they usually trust each other… Redouan Bshary of the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland and Alexandra S. Grutter from the University of Queensland, Australia, teamed up to show that clients keep track of the work ‘ethics’ of different cleaners and prefer to be serviced by the more honest ones…

Generalised reciprocity requires that animals not only feel good when someone helps them but also feel the urge to be nice to strangers at such times. Instead of dismissing this as too anthropomorphic, Claudia Rutte and Michael Taborsky of the University of Bern put the theory to the test. They trained Norwegian rats (Rattus norvegicus) in the lab to pull a stick in order to produce food for another rat, though they got nothing for themselves. Using this experimental setup, they showed that rats were more likely to help unknown rats if other unknown rats had previously helped them…

One research group in Austria is experimenting with ravens (Corvus corax) in large enclosures. A trainer gives a raven a piece of bread but ravens like a piece of cheese better. Another experimenter offers a piece of cheese in exchange for the piece of bread. The ravens love this and promptly hop over to the good Samaritan experimenter and exchange their bread for cheese. But some experimenters are ‘unfair’: they accept the bread, and in full view of the waiting raven, they themselves eat the cheese. Ravens remember the identities of ‘fair’ and ‘unfair’ human experimenters for up to a month, even after a single interaction. They then avoid ‘unfair’ experimenters and preferentially take their bread to ‘fair’ experimenters…

Animals, therefore, seem to be smart enough to show direct, indirect as well as generalised reciprocity. With this realisation, scientists have become motivated to investigate the limits of animal cognition and memory with newfound enthusiasm and confidence… A new mindset among scientists, open to the possibility of animal cognition beyond our expectations and perhaps beyond our own capabilities, has generated a new hope of understanding the logic of animal behaviour. I think it is fair to say that animals are making us smart. SOURCE…

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