Thursday, August 14, 2008

The roots of empathy

While listening to the CBC radio yesterday morning I heard Dr. Anne Russon (author of The Evolution of Thought: Evolutionary Origins of Great Ape Intelliegence) relate an amazing story about one of our close relatives on the biological family tree, the orangutan.

Dr. Russon is a developmental psychologist studying the orangutan in the wild. Her research involves the rehabilitation of orphaned young orangutans back into the wild. She conducts her research through the Orangutan Social Learning and Cultures Project operating through the BOS Orangutan Reintroduction Project at Wanariset, Borneo.

Dr. Russon described a situation, that she observed, where a young orangutan got confused and frightened as the rest of his peers (all about 6-7 years old) left to return to their nighttime compound. While the human caretakers concerned themselves with locating the youngster in a tree, one of the youngster's peers doubled back and positioned himself in an adjacent tree. This young ape then gently got the attention of the frightened youngster and eventually coaxed him down to safety, leading him back to the compound.

What is so revealing about this story is that we recognize, immediately, that this was a kind, sensitive and socially responsible thing to do - in fact we would expect no less from our own children. Why are we able to recognize empathetic behaviour in a creature to which we are related through evolution? Check out Marc D. Hauser's book Moral Minds: How nature designed our universal sense of right and wrong, for some possible answers.

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