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Joan Silk

Department of Anthropology
Center for Genetics and Society
UCLA

The Roots of Altruistic Preferences

Monday, May 3, 2010
Science I 149, 5:00 PM

Abstract

Humans are an unusually prosocial species. We vote, give blood, tithe, go to war, donate old clothes to charity, engage in collective action, conform to social norms, and punish transgressors. These activities are all prosocial because they benefit others, and some are altruistic because donors incur material costs.  In many cases, the beneficiaries of prosocial acts are unknown to the donors, and do not reciprocate directly.  Currently, there is considerable interest in the origins of how we came to be such an unusual species. One school of thought holds that the roots of prosociality can be traced back to our closest living relatives, chimpanzees, who display rudimentary forms of morality, punishment, inequity aversion, empathy, and compassion.. However, others disagree. They point out that the range of altruistic and mutualistic behaviors is in chimpanzees (and other primates) is much more limited than it is in humans. Moreover, when prosocial behaviors do occur, they are mainly limited to familiar group members—close kin, mates, or familiar, reciprocating partners. According to this view, prosociality is an emergent property of human societies, which is fundamentally tied to the emergence of a well-developed theory of mind, capacity for imitation, and culture. Here, I discuss a body of recent experiments that were designed to examine the phylogenetic range and ontogenetic development of prosocial sentiments and behavior.

Biography

I study the evolution of social behavior in primates. My empirical research focuses on on the social lives and reproductive strategies of primate females, informed by fieldwork on baboons in Kenya and Botswana. My recent work includes experimental studies of the explores the phylogenetic roots and ontogenetic development of pro-social preferences, long-term evaluation of the the structure and adaptive function of close social bonds among female baboons, and comparative analyses of the evolutionary forces that shape primate sex ratios.

Readings

  1. Chimpanzees are indifferent to the welfare of unrelated group members
  2. Social Preferences in Primates (Book Chapter)

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