Chimpanzees may understand concepts similar to human morality according to Swiss researchers. In the study, 17 chimps from two Swiss zoos exhibited qualities of knowing right from wrong within the social norms of aggressive behavior.
Study Examines the Question Do Chimps Understand Morality?
Researchers believe that chimpanzees may have a similar concept of right and wrong as humans. In a recent study published in the journal Human Nature, researchers observed 17 chimps from two Swiss zoos in Gossau and Basel. The primates watched film clips which showed animals engaged in either neutral or aggressive behaviors.
Neutral activities included chimps simply walking, while the violent activities ranged from a typical social aggression behaviors to a scene where a group of chimps hunted and killed a colobus monkey. Within the acts of aggression, one particular clip captured their attention for much longer. It involved chimpanzee infanticide and had held the chimps gaze for four times longer than any other clip.
Scientists carefully ruled out other factors that could have attributed to the increased attention for the infanticide clip, including the infant’s screams. Other videos featured similar noises to act as a control group while measuring the behavior of the animals.
Chimps Know Right From Wrong
Researchers believe this close scrutiny was due to the chimps viewing the infanticide as an activity that falls outside of normal aggressive behaviors.
“This result is consistent with the idea that severe aggression against infants did not match chimpanzees’ social expectations of a certain tolerance normally afforded to infants,” said lead researcher Claudia Rudolf von Rohr from the University of Zurich.
In other words, the chimps knew this particular behavior, the brutal slaying of a chimp infant, was not right.
Chimps Show No Emotional Response
The longer times spent watching the infanticide clip didn’t vary between male or female chimps. All groups and all chimps paid more attention to that particular scene. However, the scientists made an interesting observation about the chimps’ emotional arousal response. Mainly, the chimps showed no increased emotional response to the video.
The scientists believe their emotional distance was a result of not being able to empathize with the victim, an infant not part of their own group.
The results still point to their detection of a social norm violation says Rudolf von Rohr. Though the chimpanzees did not react, she believes an emotional response would be readily elicited if the act was occurring within their own groups.
Did Human Morality and Social Norms Evolve in Humans?
While researchers have concluded that chimps can in fact tell right from wrong, or at least discern a break within social norms, the question of whether social norms in humans have evolved over time remains unanswered for now.
With such varying cultures and beliefs, the answer may still be too diverse to pin down quite so easily for humans. However, researchers are hopeful for future studies that examine the evolution of human morality, especially with this new evidence seen within the study of the chimps and their understanding of right and wrong.