Chimpanzee Behaviour – Holding a Mirror to Humanity

Often described as our closest genetic relative, the chimpanzee is the animal with which we last shared a common ancestor. They share approximately 98% of our DNA.


Chimpanzee Behaviour – Holding a Mirror to Humanity


Guest Post by Lorna Cudmore


But it’s important to realise the difference. They’re not us. Neither are they a primitive version of us. Humans and chimps shared a common ancestor most recently, meaning chimps are more closely related to humans than they are gorillas.
They are almost an alternate version of us that followed a different path, and so can be used as a comparison. They can show us our commonalities as well as our differences, thereby revealing how we fit into the natural world. More advanced methods of studying chimp personality are giving us an enhanced look at why we behave and interact the way we do.
The original perception of chimps (pre-1960s) looks very different to how we see them now. When studying Chimps in the Gombe National Park in Tanzania, British primatologist, Jane Goodall realised that chimps didn’t fit the cuddly, even-tempered characteristic that was often assigned to them. They were thought to be strict vegetarians who couldn’t use or make tools. Goodall observed groups cornering colobus monkeys up a tree with no chance of escape, before killing and eating them. The full capacity for chimp intelligence was realised when Goodall observed a male creating and using a stick to aid in obtaining food. Prior to that, it was thought that only humans had the intellect to use tools.
Today, chimps are considered highly intelligent, empathetic, creative and loving. However, more rigorous studies have also shown a more aggressive side to them. Separate studies from two different researchers this year (Nishie and Pruetz) revealed that violence and cannibalism towards other members of the social group, including infants, was not entirely uncommon. While infanticide isn’t a novel concept in the animal kingdom, the fact that it is practised in a species so close to our own is unsettling for many. Details of younger males challenging the alpha male can be gruesome, but they give valuable information about how males form bachelor groups and contest social rankings. Similar vicious behaviours are familiar with the human race. Perhaps the definition of bestial shouldn’t be associated with only animals.
There is a shared aspect of violence between humans and chimps which isn’t seen in other great apes. What Goodall’s research reveals is that chimpanzees are probably closer to humans in behaviour than had ever been considered before her research in the field.

Chimp Personalities

A 2017 study published in Nature was the second ever attempt to characterize chimp personalities. Having studied the animals for over 30 years in the wild, researchers identified some shared aspects between humans and chimps, along with new discoveries. The research centres around five different personality traits also used in human personality studies, with one additional trait related to rank.
One aspect of the study that surprised researchers was something that differed from human personality tests: there was no significant negative relationship between distrustfulness and agreeableness (representing cohesion, social harmony) in personality. To us, it would seem that someone who is considered distrustful wouldn’t also have traits of cooperation and consideration. Another unexpected result was the positive relationship between gregariousness (enjoying company of others) and agreeableness. This study represented the first time that this relationship was recorded. In humans, gregariousness is generally associated with being extroverted. In chimps, this is connected to agreeableness and makes sense in light of the chimps’ highly social lifestyle.
The study of chimpanzees has proved fruitful in many ways, particularly as it holds up a mirror to humanity’s own evolution. It clarifies the common origin of shared characteristics between humans and chimps but also shows us where we have diverged in our development. It allows us to decide for ourselves what it is to be human and where to draw the line between us and animals. 2% difference might not be enough.


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