Between ape and angel

May 17, 1996

Sanjida O'Connell believes that if manners maketh man, then chimpanzees, who have a moral code, should be considered human

scientists have been arguing that gorillas and chimpanzees are so close to us genetically that they should be classified in the same group as humans. On the basis of similarity of DNA, the molecule that determines our genetic code, there is only a difference of 1.6 per cent between us and chimps, and 1.7 per cent between humans and gorillas. This has led Simon Esteal, from the John Curtin school of medical research in Canberra, to argue that humans and the other two apes should all be classified in the genus homo.

Treating three highly related species as members of a single group would have been automatic were it not for our pride. As it is we have always prized our uniqueness and have often chosen to ignore the common biological heritage we share with the higher primates like chimpanzees.

One trait which we still consider unique to humans is morality. Yet if it is acknowledged that we are so intimately linked with gorillas and chimps, the ability to be moral may indeed be due to biology. Morality is highly likely to be a byproduct of our big brains, and our propensity for social living. These are traits that we share with our closest living ancestor, the chimpanzee, and surprising as it may seem, chimpanzees do show a rudimentary morality.

One of the key attributes needed for morality is sympathy. As long ago as 1872, Charles Darwin thought that sympathy was an "all-important emotion". In The Descent of Man he wrote, "Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts I would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become I nearly as well developed as in man."

However, there is a distinction to be made here between sympathy and empathy. One might have precious little sympathy for a murderer, but one could empathise by trying to understand his motives.

Chimpanzees are capable of showing both empathy and sympathy. I have witnessed chimps spend hours cleaning and licking the wounds of others. At the very least, the attention chimps pay to wounds shows an awareness of the needs of others. Less able chimps are not only tolerated, but fed and cared for by other members of the group.

Experiments have shown that chimps have the ability to see a situation from another's perspective which is a fundamental criteria needed for empathy. In one study, chimpanzees were paired with humans. One of the pair played the role of the informant - she knew where food had been hidden and had to point this out to the operator, who retrieved the food and shared it with the informant. Once the pair understood their own roles, they swapped over, the informant playing operator, and vice versa. Three of the four chimpanzees immediately understood their new role - thus showing they understood their partner's perspective. This is a task which monkeys and children younger than three are unable to understand.

Having the emotional willingness to help others and the cognitive capacity to show at least some understanding of another's situation are two requirements needed for morality. However, biologists have long defined sympathetic acts as pure selfishness: according to the "selfish gene" theory we help those who share the same or a similar genetic make-up to ourselves - close relatives are helped more than distant cousins since they have fewer genes in common with us, and help is less often accorded to those who are not related. Another biological explanation for morality is that animals only help those who have helped them. This kind of tit-for-tat altruism is seen less often in the animal kingdom, but there are some startling examples. Vampire bats live up to their name and drink blood from cows, horses and chickens but because blood is not particularly nutritious - a pint contains fewer calories than a fruit yoghurt - a bat who fails to feed can only survive for two days. The bats have adopted a buddy system based on mutual trust: they regurgitate blood to those who missed their liquid lunch.

But humans can and do help in a purely unselfish way. We aid and empathise with people and animals we have never met and with whom we have no connection. Chimpanzees behave similarly and will help non-relatives, strangers and members of other species. One chimp, Washoe, jumped over an electric fence and pulled a drowning chimp out of a moat. Apart from the danger, Washoe had never seen this chimp before.

Unselfish altruism is not enough: one of the essential features of morality is that it is a system based on rules that we have internalised. To a limited extent, chimpanzees also have a set code of conduct, and their rules are enforced by the group. For example, the dominant male is the one who gets to mate with the females, although clandestine liaisons do occur. One male who discovered a male and female mating surreptitiously, rushed to the dominant male and led him to the pair who were infringing the rules. At Arnhem Zoo in the Netherlands, the keepers have a policy of not feeding the group unless all the chimps come into their indoor enclosure at night. One summer night two adolescent chimps refused to go indoors. The keepers spent two hours trying to persuade them to cooperate; when they did, they were given a separate enclosure. But the next morning when all the chimps were let out, the whole group chased the pair and beat them.

The internalisation of rules is not something other animals seem to do. Even dogs, who are capable of obeying rules in the absence of their owners, usually treat the rule as a simple association between an object and an outcome. A dog who was told off for shredding paper showed typical expressions of submission and guilt when she saw torn paper regardless of whether she was the culprit or not.

A moral system will not work if every individual is motivated by purely selfish reasons. A concern for others and for the community is essential. Chimpanzees, while capable of savagely beating each other on occasion, have an overwhelming desire for harmony. After a fight, the two warring parties must make up. Those who are reluctant to do so are often encouraged by a third party, usually a female. Females will also remove rocks from the hands of males who are threatening others, and groups gang up on the physically more powerful males to prevent them fighting. The dominant male of the group plays the role of mediator.

Chimpanzees are capable of showing empathy and sympathy in an unselfish way. They have a set of rules which is abided by and enforced by their community. Their morality is simplistic, and reminds me of the morality of very young children who can show sympathy but are sometimes frightened by ill or handicapped people, who only have a rudimentary grasp of empathy, and whose moral code of conduct consists of little more than fairness, and who, if they do not get their own way, throw temper tantrums. Chimps, while they have a desire for peace and reconciliation, can be brutal to those within and without their group: in the wild they have wiped out whole neighbouring troops. But we, neither fully ape nor angel, have inherited both the ability to be moral creatures and the capacity for unmitigating violence from our primate ancestors.

Sanjida O'Connell is studying for her PhD in psychology at Liverpool University. Her first novel, Theory of Mind, published in July by Black Swan, is about empathy in chimps and people.

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