The babysitters' club

Shared childcare fosters co-operation and altruism in social animals

source: Mairi MacLeod
New Scientist vol 209 no 2804, March 19 2011 starts p48, 4 pages long

Some researchers believe that shared childcare encourages co-operation and altruism in certain species. In humans this also helped foster language, technology and culture. Humans can collaborate in teams, read emotion in others, and may even be kind to strangers. Captive marmosets show more altruism than chimps, when able to pull food in the direction of a neighbour's cage. Marmosets are co-operative breeders, while chimps are independent breeders. Infants in co-operative societies may survive better if they can judge non-related adults. Elephants are also co-operative breeders, as are African wild dogs. Wolves also share water and food, and may help disabled or injured members of a group.

Domestic dogs are descended from wolves, and perform better on tasks such as imitation in comparison with animals that have simuilar sized brains. Researchers have observed dogs consoling victims after fights. Socio-cognitive tasks, like imitation, also include gaze understanding and social learning. Co-operative breeders donate information as well as food, in other words they are teachers. Tamarins bring young dead insects, then live prey, then show where prey is hidden, according to the youngsters' ability. Matrilineal groups may also encourage co-operative breeding because adults in a group are related to the young.