Monkey Kind, Monkey See, Monkey Know

When monkeys help another monkey, they know it.

“When given the option either to drink juice from a tube themselves or to give the juice away to a neighbour, the test monkeys would mostly keep the drink. But when the choice was between giving the juice to the neighbour or neither monkey receiving it, the choosing monkey would frequently opt to give the drink to the other monkey,” according to an article at



The significant discovery was not the act itself, however. It was finding that an area of the brain responded only when a monkey not only gave the drink to another but also watched the neighbor drink it. Steve Chang and his colleagues from Duke University conducted the study reported in Nature Neuroscience in 2013.

Through the development of a part of the brain that experiences the reward of helping others, empathy-like processes may have been favoured during evolution in primates to allow altruistic behaviour. “This may have evolved originally to promote being nice to family, since they share genes, and later friends, for reciprocal benefits,” says Michael Platt,  a co-author of the paper.

For humans, these incentives for generosity have encouraged our capacity for kindness so much that we can be kind even t0 strangers—and even if they are out of sight. Unlike monkeys, we don’t need to witness a hungry member of our species eating our donation of food. It is enough that we can imagine it, and we choose to do that in part because it is pleasurable.

This holds true even though our remote giving has its limitations. Donations to organizations, for example, may not reach those we intend to reach, and even if the donations do get there, they may not prove very useful. But we donate anyway because the experience of generosity is so powerful.

We may sometimes look down on the act of giving to others simply because it feels good. Shouldn’t altruism be motivated more by duty and justice? But this study suggests that we have good reason to respect our pleasurable response. It is our ancient participation in one of evolution’s more benevolent survival strategies. .


Do Virtues Require Adversity?

I was thinking recently that I’ve never taken stock of which virtues I believe are the most important ones. There are, after all, a lot of virtues out there, as a quick search shows. I especially like the descriptions in Wikipedia’s “Seven virtues”.

But for now, here are five that have been important to me at some time: courage, patience, persistence, honesty, and kindness.

A multitude of virtues (

A multitude of virtues

These five have in common one characteristic that surprised me. They are virtues for difficult times. They are actions that are advantageous in circumstances when it would be all too easy—and less effective—to be fearful, impatient, discouraged, false, or nasty or indifferent. I wondered, are virtues in general things that you need during hard times? Are they simply unnecessary in  easy times? Do virtues depend on adversity?

This line of thinking alarmed me. Aren’t there virtues for easy times? There’s generosity, perhaps, which usually assumes good times at least for the donor. Appreciation? Thankfulness? Gratitude over the Thanksgiving bounty? Well, yes, better to be appreciative than ungrateful or spoiled. But these virtues seem to be very easy to do or think or feel. Hardly worthy of the name “virtue.” It’s not a big deal to be thankful in good times compared to being persistent in tough times.

Perhaps more specifically than adversity, these five virtues connote a setting that is basic, essential, or even physical. It takes physical courage to face a storm at sea, patience to wait for a game animal to pass by, persistence to climb a mountain. Honesty is primitive not in a physical but in a social way: it’s the core of our social relationships and perceptions of truthfulness or deceptiveness. Kindness too speaks to a basic element of social harmony.

Virtues often evoke physical struggles. (

Virtues often evoke physical struggles.

Because the virtues touch on such human fundamentals, I see them now as a kind of screen beyond which we can glimpse the struggles of our ancestors over millions of years. Over the centuries, the virtues have been a shifting set of labels—badges of sorts, quickly recognized, widely respected—for the behaviors that have worked well if not perfectly over the long history of community. They are the community’s protocol for preferred survival strategies.

But what about the uncomfortable possibility that for those of us fortunate enough to be healthy, secure, and cheerful, life may be too easy to require us to summon up virtues? Perhaps that scenario is simply never the case; perhaps life is never that easy. Perhaps the virtues have just moved indoors, become domesticated, as civilization has gone modern. Even in suburbia, after all, it remains challenging to call up the honesty and courage to tell a supervisor something that s/he doesn’t want to hear, or to be patient and persistent with cranky children, or to be kind to an unpleasant neighbor or coworker. The virtues still do get us through the difficult conversations. We might not classify them as “Virtues” anymore, though; we’re more likely to call them “coping skills.” They do lose their grandeur when life is more comfortable.