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Primates’ behavior may be example for us

Frans de Waal, a Dutch-born American biologist, was termed one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine.
A fascinating new book by him cites observations from research centers and zoos in the United States and other countries on behavior leading to cooperation, resource sharing and social harmony in the primate world.
The research reveals such character qualities in the apes as sympathy for others’ feelings, altruism, a strong sense of fairness and desire to alleviate suffering among group members, among other “humane” attributes.
They suggest to the author that an “Age of empathy” (the book’s title) is possible if we humans would better attend to “nature’s lessons for a kinder society.”
Among numerous examples noted in the book, a young chimpanzee rushes to his caretaker’s side if he sees her (pretend) crying, “tenderly taking [her] chin in his palm and lightly touching [her] face, as though trying to understand what is happening,” and to console her.
All primates “show community concern,” de Waal states, with older members brokering good relations and arbitrating conflicts.
“Targeted helping” is common and may show insight for the situational needs, even of another species.
Thus, in a zoo, a bonobo monkey, having found a stunned bird that had hit the glass wall of the enclosure took it to the highest point of a tree and spread its wings in setting it free.
Commitment to others and emotional sensitivity to their situation, including even “heroism” and risk taking, are found to be common in the primates’ social life.
They resent inequity and may even plead with the human expertimenter to be fair to all.
Capuchin monkeys happily participate in long, paired-test sessions if the reward is a desired kind and is the same for both partners.
Apes may also be sensitive to the positive aspect of a “fairness norm” when getting more than others.
De Waal cites the reaction of a female chimpanzee in a test situation as an example.
She received plenty of highly prized rewards “but felt the eyes of her friends on her who were watching from a distance.” Refusing all rewards after a while, she kept looking at the experimenter and gesturing to the others, “until they, too, got some of the goodies,” before resuming participation in the test.
Basic support and services are now being withdrawn from millions more suffering Americans, in the name of fixing budget deficits.
The amazing facts about social responsibility, caring and equity in Simian society presented by de Waal lets one wonder about an empathy deficit in our society.