Distant cousins: More alike than you think!

This post is also available in Dutch.

Plato’s golden rule states we should treat others the way we’d like to be treated. We follow this rule because it feels good helping others. So why not do the same for animals?

 “I am not an animal!”  (John Merrick, “Elephant man”)

Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license.

In Europe, we have been taught Darwinism since primary school, and should therefore embrace the fact that the human species belongs to the animal kingdom. In spite of that, people still continue to be mistaken by saying only humans can use tools, learn from each other’s experiences, and are compassionate towards others. A Dutch primatologist, Frans de Waal, calls this specific ability to ignore the similarities between humans and animals “Anthropodenial”.  De Waal, himself, further advocates that animal and human cognition is not that different after all.

Is morality for humans only?!

According to de Waal, morality is based on compassion, fairness and reciprocity. Until recently these traits were considered to be exclusively human features.


In a recent study, capuchin monkeys showed that they can reject rewards that deem to be unfair. If a capuchin monkey is paid unequally for a given task (e.g. the monkey got a cucumber while their fellow neighbor received a juicy grape), they will throw their food back at the experimenter. Interestingly, not only does the unequally paid monkey evaluate its situation as unfair, but the neighboring monkey will reject their ‘unfair’ payment until both receive equal and fair payment, i.e. grapes [15:50 see the video].

Altruism and reciprocity

A monkey placed in a cage has to choose which token to pick, either a green token or a red token. If the monkey chooses a green token, both the monkey and their neighboring monkey will be fed. If the monkey chooses a red token – only they will receive food. Over a period of time, the monkey develops a preference towards the green token. However, if their neighbor behaves aggressively such as spilling water or throwing objects against the cage, the green token will be less preferred. As you can imagine, prosocial behavior in monkeys has its limits too.


Helping others is quite common in animals. If a young chimp falls down the tree, other monkeys will rush towards them to try and calm them down. Dolphins and elephants also do the same.  Empathy in mammals is very much present. Monkeys will often reconcile after a fight by grooming (i.e. chimps) or through sex (i.e. bonobos).  These techniques are quite familiar for some humans as well.

Brave new world

Humans are not entirely the same as animals. For example, such complex emotions as shame or guilt are probably specific to humans; however, basic emotions such as fear are common for both humans and animals. In a similar way, moral emotions, tool use or language are older than we think. We did not invent them.

For the past decade, new changes have been introduced to improve the wellbeing of animals. For instance, wild animals have been banned in circuses. Many of these changes have been triggered by recent discoveries in the animal field. Indeed, knowing that we actually share many common cognitive functions makes it more plausible for better treatment of animals and change procedure and laws accordingly… or perhaps simply eat less of them.


Written by Lara, edited by Roselyne&Marpessa


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