The Evolution of Empathy Helping, of course, can go beyond assisting kin or members of one’s own group. Consider the story of Binti Jua, for example. At the end of 1996, People magazine honored her as one of the 25 “most intriguing people” of the year, and Newsweek named her “hero of the year.” Earlier that year while caring for her own 17-month-old daughter, Binti came across a 3-year-old boy who had fallen almost 20 feet onto a cement floor and been knocked unconscious. She picked up the boy and gently held him, rocking him softly, and then turned him over to paramedics. What was most “intriguing” about Binti? The fact that she was a gorilla.
When the boy climbed over a fence and fell into the primate exhibit at the Brookfield Zoo near Chicago, witnesses feared the worst. One paramedic said, “I didn’t know if she was going to treat him like a doll or a toy.” With her own daughter clinging to her back the entire time, Binti “protected the toddler as if he were her own,” keeping other gorillas at bay and eventually placing him gently at the entrance where zookeepers and paramedics could get to him. “I could not believe how gentle she was,” observed a zoo director.
Was this an act of kindness and compassion, or did the gorilla just do what she had been trained to do—pick up and fetch things dropped into her cage? Cases like this raise the more fundamental question of whether concepts such as morality and empathy can apply to nonhuman animals. Most people think of these as qualities that allow humans to resist and rise above our more selfish, violent, “animal” nature, but instead they may reflect the social nature of many mammals, particularly primates. In order to live successfully in small groups, it was important for social animals to develop some sense of the proper way to behave in groups and an ability to recognize and respond to danger or suffering in other group members. Humans certainly have much more highly developed moral reasoning and capacity for empathy, but their moral roots can be traced down the evolutionary chain (de Waal, 2019).
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