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Open Access Publications from the University of California

World Cultures eJournal

UC Irvine

Altruism in Animal Play and Human Ritual


Altruism is generally defined as the selfless concern for the wellbeing of others or, in the case of nonhuman animals, as behavior that appears to be detrimental to the survival of a given individual but which may contribute to the survival of the others. Calls by social prey species that warn others of the approach of predators, for example, are often regarded as altruistic in that they may help the majority of animals survive while simultaneously drawing the attention of the predator to the individual giving the warning. Animal play and human ritual are areas that are not commonly considered to involve altruism but closer inspection may be warranted. I will argue below that play is the context wherein animals first exhibit, and learn, altruism and that it is displayed by some, although perhaps not all, participants in a ritual common to Latin America.

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