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Frans de Waal Headshot

I Have Seen My Shadow, and It's Human!

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I am no Punxsutawney Phil, and don't care much for the men in high hats who awkwardly kept my fellow groundhog aloft at a safe distance from their coats, but I did see my shadow today and, I hate to tell you, it is human!

We, animals, are often said to be like humans in our bodies, but very unlike them in our minds. People keep repeating this despite all of the contradictory evidence. And here I am not alluding to the attempt to teach pandas "sexercises" by showing them "panda porn" or by having dogs massacre each other for monetary gain, which just goes to show that we are all too human. I am referring to the evidence for nice, helpful, cooperative behavior by animals. We may not be human, but it seems we can be as humane as the next Homo empathicus.

Scientists are insufferably skeptical, though, so when dogs rescue humans (or cats - go figure!) out of a burning building or when dolphins protect human swimmers against encircling sharks, we animals have done everything in our power to demonstrate our kinder side, yet the scientific community dismisses our efforts as "anecdotal evidence." They forget that by the same token the observation that humans are able to reach the moon is anecdotal. Scientific experiments rarely test human capacities to the limit.

It was necessary, therefore, that we participate in experiments that measured our empathy. This was done, for example, by giving one chimpanzee access to a key that could unlock a door for another chimpanzee, behind which there was food. Would the one chimp help the other to get the food? Or one capuchin monkey was given the option to either get food for itself only or for itself as well as another monkey at the same time. Would the monkey prefer to share?

After many of such tests it has now been concluded that, yes, primates other than humans love to help each other. They do care about the welfare of others as much as humans do, which is to say, some of the time.

This has implications for modern human society, because all too often politicians start from the assumption that society needs to be structured around competition, given that this is how nature works. Their dismal, inaccurate view of the natural world thus informs their view of human society. Too bad if some people have no health insurance, so the argument goes, so long as those who can afford it do. Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona went one step further by voting against coverage of maternity care, because, as he explained, he had never had any need for it himself.

I feel that we should hold Senator Kyl and others of his species aloft in the glaring daylight and see what their shadow tells us. If they don't see the sun soon, there will be a never-ending winter.

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