Solidarity Forever

February 28, 2016

I came across this sentence during my morning reading: “Chimpanzee’s most sophisticated social-cognitive abilities may emerge only in the more natural situations of food competition with conspecifics.” It set me thinking.

But first, the obligatory tangent, this time less in the vein of changing the subject and more in line with being helpful to my readers. The sentence comes from a 2000 article in the scientific journal Animal Behavior. Brian Hare, Josep Call, Bryan Agnetta and Michael Tomasello were reporting that chimpanzees do in fact form beliefs about what other chimpanzees do and do not know, or to be more precise, what other chimpanzees do and do not see. The “conspecifics” they refer to are other chimpanzees, or more generally others of one’s own species. The food connection is incidental. It refers to experiments done to test whether young children have beliefs about what others do and do not know where the test involved what someone else knows about the location of a piece of chocolate.

The Animal Behavior researchers point out that the experiments with humans presupposed the potential for cooperative communication about food resources. They suggest that while this is possible among even very young children, it is more natural for chimps to regard food as a competitive good. Hare, Call, Agnetta and Tomasello are saying that chimps are unlikely to reveal what (or even that) they know about what other chimps are thinking under such circumstances. So we shouldn’t use this kind of situation to test whether they do, in fact, have beliefs about their conspecifics state of mind.

End of tangent. What set me to thinking was the implied suggestion that humans find it natural to engage in cooperative behavior with respect to food. I’m not saying that this is unique to humans. There are a number of predatory species that engage in cooperative hunting. Even bees are able to exhibit some pretty sensational cooperative behaviors with respect to the location of pollen. That’s not the direction my thoughts were headed.

I’m thinking about generalizing the connection between cooperative behavior among humans and food. This could have some significance for food ethics, don’t you think? I’ve noticed that competition over food is crucial to husbandry for some livestock species. They’ll hurt each other, on one hand, and on the other hand they don’t seem to mind trade-offs in their comfort when the payoff is being sure that no one else can get my food. And maybe humans are not like that. Maybe we have evolved both socially and biologically so that cooperating with one another about getting food is something that we just about take for granted. And maybe, just maybe, that has something to do with ethics. How does that kids’ song go? “We’re all for worm and worm for all.”

Not that I want to carry this too far. Humans have fought some pretty devastating wars over food in our past. Yet even my toddler granddaughter seems to be willing to share some mushy bananas now and then, at least as long as sharing doesn’t mean giving up her snack altogether.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State Univesity

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