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Monkeys reflect a degree of empathy

23 July 2005

THE greedy fox in Aesop's fable sees his reflection in a lake and tries to snatch the food the "other" fox is carrying. Most mammals behave like the fox when they see a reflection of themselves, and monkeys were widely assumed to follow suit.

Not so, say primate researchers. Monkeys don't have the same level of self-awareness as apes and humans, but neither do they treat their reflection like that of a stranger.

Frans de Waal and colleagues at Emory University, Atlanta, watched how capuchin monkeys reacted to mirrors, or to familiar or unfamiliar monkeys. Males and females behave differently, they found. In what could be seen as proto-human reactions, male monkeys are competitive whereas females flirt with their reflections. But neither behaves as though they understand they are looking at themselves, nor acts as they would with a strange monkey.

"Females are very relaxed in the presence of a mirror, much more so than in the presence of a stranger," says de Waal. Males, on the other hand, seem to enter into some sort of competition, which they can't win.

The work suggests that empathy - for which self-recognition is thought to be an essential element - is not confined to apes, says de Waal, but is seen in a simpler form in monkeys and other mammals too. "The work hints at very gradual evolution that started well before humans and apes came along."

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