LAUSANNE — Is wildlife a world of bullies? We like to imagine the relationships among living beings as a no-holds-barred struggle for survival, a twisted vision of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, conveyed by the political and economic doctrine of social Darwinism. And yet, examples of cooperation abound in the animal world. Mammals, insects and even microorganisms, virtually all living beings who live in groups actually, have developed forms of collaboration. Helping each other out can be beneficial to all parties, for example when killer whales team up to hunt and improve their chances to feed and ultimately survive.

But are there really authentic altruistic behaviors in the animal world? “Altruism is a selfless act, with no other benefit than to improve the state of the other,” says Jennifer Mcclung, an ethologist at the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland. “As far as animals are concerned, this behavior can be observed mostly in how parents care for their offspring, while human beings can be altruistic with perfect strangers.” Not all experts agree with the idea of talking about bona fide altruism in animal behavior. Yet, examples defy the doubts: Some animals really do bend over backwards for others.

Caring chimps

In their natural environment, chimpanzees sometimes help the injured or adopt abandoned young ones. Experiments conducted in captivity have shown similar behavior. When offered the choice between two colored tokens, capuchin monkeys prefer the one that will allow them to share a reward with a fellow monkey, rather than the one that awards an entire lot of grapes to themselves only. The famous Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal, who has been documenting such behaviors for the past 20 years, is sure that primates follow altruistic impulses based on empathy, the ability to feel the emotions of others. His opinion, however, isn’t shared by everyone. Some argue that the results of certain experiments could indeed be the consequence of conditioning, rather than the proof of a laudable intent.

Empathetic elephants

Some chirping and a few strokes of the trunk is all it takes for an elephant to reassure another frightened elephant. A baby elephant stuck in a ditch manages to get out with the help of an older elephant. And a group of elephants might remain several days with a dead one as if to pay him homage one last time. In the animal world, elephants are among those whose social ties are the most developed. Much of their behavior suggests that they are able to feel empathy. But are they really willing to act for the benefit of others without expecting anything in return? Or are we over-interpreting their actions through the prism of human morality?

A herd of elephants showing affection to each other — Photo: Max Pixel

Community-minded critters

Working your entire life to feed the offspring of others and soldiers who voluntarily put themselves in the firing line to defend their community: These examples of extreme selflessness really do exist... among insects. The bizarre behavior of bees, ants, and termites, to name just a few, were already a source of questioning for Darwin. But there is an explanation. Unlike most living beings, which transmit their genes through reproduction, social insects favor the spread of their hereditary lines by protecting those they are related to. This is not altruism in the sense that we, human being, understand it. Rather, the consideration shown by ants is a form of genetic programming.

Benefactor rat

Help! If a rat sees another rat locked up in a plastic tube, it will try to free it, even if that means having to share its food afterwards. But maybe the savior just wants company? Research published in Animal Cognition in 2015 suggests that it is the distress of its fellow rat that encourages the rodent to act. A rat will open a hatch in the wall of a plexiglass aquarium if it allows another rat to drag itself out of the water. However, the same rat won’t intervene if the other is in the same device but in the dry. The rodent will come to its partner’s rescue even more quickly if it has already had the unpleasant aquarium experience itself.

Whale of a gentleman

The following scene took place in the icy waters of the Antarctic Peninsula. A group of killer whales were swimming side-by-side. They spot a very fat seal taking shelter on a block of floating ice. Their hunting technique consists in generating a wave that will destabilize the block. Once the seal is in the water, they can finally eat it. But here comes an unexpected player: a humpback whale. It gets between the prey and its predators, strikes the water with its huge tail, and momentarily gets the seal out of the water with a delicate “backhand.” The seal is safe. After he had witnessed this surprising face-off, an American biologist started to look into the interactions between humpback whales and killer whales and published his results in Marine Mammal Science in 2016. Of the 115 cases reported to him, he identified about 30 in which a whale appears to have deliberately intervened to stop an attack. That a whale should react in this fashion when one of its offspring is targeted is not surprising. But that it does it to save an animal from another species is more difficult to explain because it doesn’t bring the whale anything. Humpback whales probably are used to intervening as soon as it identifies a killer whale attack, regardless of the prey. If that’s the case, then whales’ altruism towards other species would happen somewhat inadvertently.