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‘Animal Behavioural Economics’: Lessons Learnt From Primate Research

Manuel Wörsdörfer

Abstract

The paper gives an overview of primate research and the economic-ethical ‘lessons’ we can derive from it. In particular, it examines the complex, multi-faceted and partially conflicting nature of (non-) human primates. Our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos, apparently walk on two legs: a selfish and a groupish leg. Given evolutionary continuity and gradualism between monkeys, apes and humans, human primates seem to be bipolar apes as well. They, too, tend to display a dual structure: there seems to be a pro-social and a self-interested side to our species and a bipolar tension seems to exist between competition and cooperation respectively between self-interest and the common good. We are apparently at the same time Homines oeconomici and Homines culturali. Our inner ape tries to combine self-interested and common good motives. Based on de Waal’s Russian doll model, the essay investigates the evolutionary origins of morality and ‘eusociality’. With the help of selected case studies stemming from behavioural sciences/economics, the paper illustrates examples of empathy, altruism, reciprocal fairness, pro-social and other-regarding preferences, inequity aversion and altruistic punishment in (non-)human primates. Beside this selfless and groupish side, the paper also reflects on the self-interest and egoistic nature of (non-)human primates and the behavioural and cognitive differences between monkeys, apes and humans.

Published on 23 Mar 2015 in Economic Thought Vol 4, No 1, 2015