Altruistic animals

To watch the 5 o’clock news every night, you’d think man was born to be destructive, violent and antagonistic. But that’s just not the case, argue numerous prominent researchers who will gather at Washington University in St. Louis March 12-14 to discuss the nature of human sociality.

Wild baboons in Africa forage for food.

The conference, titled “Man the Hunted: The Origin and Nature of Human Sociality, Altruism and Well-Being,” will be the first of its kind to include academics from around the world and across multiple disciplines — anthropology, psychiatry, human evolution, biology, religion, education and medicine — to focus on the evolution of cooperation, altruism and sociality and possible factors that led to the evolution of these characteristics in primates and humans.

The conference is organized by Robert W. Sussman, Ph.D., professor of anthropology in Arts & Sciences, and C. Robert Cloninger, M.D., the Wallace Renard Professor of Psychiatry, professor of genetics and director of the Center for the Psychobiology of Personality and the Sansone Center for Well-Being at the Washington University School of Medicine.

The concept of altruism and cooperation is often assumed to be one of humanity’s essential and defining characteristics. It has also been difficult to account for the origins of altruistic motives and behavior.

Evolutionary biologists, primatologists, anthropologists and other social scientists have found data on seemingly altruistic behavior in many animal species, as well as in human societies, that do not conform with models of kin selection and altruism based solely on competition and the evolutionary drive to pass on selfish genes.

This symposium will review recent debates about the nature and origins of cooperative behavior. It will test the hypothesis that unselfish cooperative behavior has evolved in animals that live in groups. It will also explore many of the mechanisms primates and humans may have evolved as protection against predators, including cooperation and sociality.

“Research in anthropology, social sciences, and mental health are converging to show that human beings are naturally predisposed to be kind and sociable, not cruel and violent,” Cloninger said. “Violence and cruelty are maladaptive behaviors that are provoked by social inequality and attempts to dominate others unfairly. This conference brings together leading scientists to document these facts and to discuss ways this knowledge can promote cooperation and well-being in the face of current worldwide economic and social unrest.”

Cloninger is author of the 2004 book “Feeling Good: The Science of Well-Being.”

He argues that fear, violence and addictions interfere with normal human behavior and can contribute to psychiatric illness as well as to cycles of violence, distrust and despair. Those behaviors, however, are relatively uncommon in human beings and tend to be abnormal responses to unnatural conditions.

Cloninger claims that the normal pattern for human beings is to be social. People who develop a need for psychiatric intervention are those who have become alienated and anti-social. It is our nature to want to work together and cooperate.

Living in groups, he has said, made animals safer and, in turn, social living created intellectual demands that stimulated further co-evolution of sociality and brain development. Therefore, evolution has a direction toward great cooperation and consciousness.

Sussman has stressed the interdisciplinary nature of the conference.

“Conventional wisdom depicts the earliest humans as hunters and on top of the food chain, he said. “As part of this view of early human evolution is the idea that our earliest ancestors were violent and aggressive and that this is part of human nature. However, from a careful examination of the fossil evidence, it now appears that our early ancestors were prey species and not predators. Living in social groups and exhibiting cooperative and altruistic behaviors towards other group members are common mechanisms used to avoid predation.”

It appears that non-human primates and humans have developed behavioral, neurological, and hormonal mechanisms that reinforce affiliative and altruistic behaviors, and that these have deep evolutionary roots. In this conference, anthropologists, primatologists, ethnographers, paleontologists, biologists, psychologists, psychiatrists and philosophers will discuss this more positive view of human nature and evolution,” he said.

Sussman is co-author, with Donna Hart of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, of the ground-breaking 2006 book “Man the Hunted: Primates, Predators and Human Evolution,” updated in paperback form in 2009. In it, he argues that primates, including early humans, evolved not as hunters, but as prey.

In the book, Sussman and Hart posed a new theory, based on the fossil record and living primate species, that primates have been prey for millions of years, a fact that greatly influenced the evolution of early man.

Our intelligence, cooperation and many other features we have as modern humans developed from our attempts to out-smart the predator, he argued.

Related to that study, Sussman has been examining primate social organization, arguing that primates are innately social beings, not aggressive killers as they are sometimes portrayed.

He refutes sociobiologist’s claims that primates are altruistic only for kin selection, reciprocation and reconciliation. He claims instead that animals are not forced to live socially, but do it because it benefits them in numerous ways.

He states that while predatory pressure is one of the reasons for group living to be evolutionarily advantageous, through natural selection humans and primates have developed areas of the brain that respond with pleasure to being cooperative.

Topics covered at the conference will include the influence of predation on early human evolution and its impetus for cooperation, the role of bonding and manipulation in social cooperation, the nomadic forager model and its lessons for human conflict management and altruism, the neurobiology of altruism, evolution and self-awareness as the basis for altruism and creativity, and altruism and spirituality, among others.

A panel discussion, which is open to the public, will be featured from 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m. March 14.

A complete schedule and list of participants is available on Sussman’s Web page at