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The Behavior of Human Beings and Nonhuman Primates Research Paper


This paper is aimed at comparing and contrasting the principles of human group behavior and group formation with those of non-human primates. In particular, it is necessary to focus on those patterns, which people only elaborated in the course of evolution, and on those properties that are inherent only to Homo sapiens as a species.

Furthermore, in this paper I would like to discuss the territoriality of both human beings and non-human primates, in other words, the strategies of establishing and defending one’s territory.

Group behavior and group formation

Similar Patterns

For a very long time, it was considered by many scholars that the tendency to develop social links and live in communities is typical only of human beings; however, the arrival of evolutionary theory broke this stereotype. There are certain patterns of human group behavior and group formation that are only cognitive elaborations of the primate case.

One of them is social competition, caused by the desire to raise one’s status in the community. Both human being and non-human primates strive to acquire leading positions in the group; this idea has already been proved by anthropologists, who observed such behavior in monkeys, and especially alpha males that can fight one another in effort to become the leader of the troop (deWaal, 1992).

The only difference is that human beings have worked out far more sophisticated and crueler methods of getting competitive advantage.

The second property, which is common in both groups, is the tendency to form coalition and alliances (Cords, 1997, p 31). In this case, the term coalition should be interpreted as the joined forces of two or more parties in order to overcome a common enemy or a threat. For instance, chimpanzees can render assistance to weak representatives of the troop (mostly, females) in order to gain their support (deWaal, 1992, p 129).

In part, formation of coalition can be explained by common needs of the troop such as the need for food or the necessity to protect their territory (Wrangham, 1995, p 1). Anthropologists also hypothesize that some non-human primates, especially baboons tend to establish friendly relations with other representatives of the troop, even though they may be the same sex (Cords, 1997, p 26).

In addition to that, monkeys as well as humans use various methods of managing aggression and violence. For example, among some groups of macaques, there are high-ranking males, which intervene and stop fights (Cords, 1997, p 41). Naturally, in the majority of cases, they just beat the fighting sides apart by resorting to brutal force.

Yet, this is also a rudimental form of peacekeeping, the behavioral pattern which has become so elaborate among human beings. To some extent, these high-ranking males perform the function of mediators, who settle or avert conflicts. One should bear in mind that non-human primates also recognize the necessity for reconciliation, which normally occurs within several minutes after the conflict.

Finally, social learning is also inherent to the behavior of non-human primates. This social learning is primarily based on imitation; such behavior can be observed among gorillas and apes that can acquire skills for finding objects, usually food (Byrne & Whiten, 1997, p 7).

Again, we need to stress an idea that nonhuman primates can only imitate the activities of others, while being unable to analyze or decompose these activities. These are those properties, which are present in human-beings and non-human primates. The difference between them lies mostly in the degree of sophistication.

Properties, inherent only in human beings

Still, there are some properties of group behavior that are typical only of human beings. They have been acquired in the course of the evolutionary process. First, one can mention the so-called social transmission, which denotes passing of knowledge and skills from one generation to another (Whiten, 1999, p 184). The most common example is the acquisition of the first language.

Additionally, the key feature, distinguishing Homo sapiens from non-human primates is the ability to rely upon the experience of the previous generations. This is the corner stone of social and technological progress. Another property of group behavior, which is characteristic only of Homo sapiens, is the so-called “mind-reading” (Whiten, 1999, p 188).

In this context, this term can be defined as the ability to study, analyze and predict the behavior of other people (Whiten, 1999, p 188). In the previous section, we have mentioned that monkeys are capable of social learning, but this ability relies only on observation and imitation, whereas mind-reading requires analysis.

It is also possible to argue that egalitarian relations are an inseparable part of human group behavior, and one cannot observe it among monkeys (Whiten, 1998, p 188). To be more exact, we need to speak about the urge or aspiration for egalitarianism because people have yet to build an egalitarian society.

Apart from that, such phenomenon as social contract is also uniquely human property. The idea of social contract lies on the premise that there are rules, which are beneficial to every member of community. Therefore, everyone has to follow them; otherwise, he/she runs the risks of being expelled from this community.

Human beings have established their distinct strategies of group formation: Homo sapiens form coalitions and alliances not only to defeat a common enemy, but also to raise the quality of their living. In this case, we can speak about the labor division.

This division first took place, when the primitive society was divided into two groups, hunters and gatherers, and since that time it has become only more complex. These are the properties of group behavior and group formation that can be found only among humans.

Cultural elaborations and Innate Qualities

Some patterns of group behavior and group formation are innate in every human being; whereas other properties were elaborated in the course of cultural and historical development and through human cooperation. When speaking about innate qualities, we need to mention the capacity for mind-reading, in other words, the ability to analyze and predict the motives, intentions and actions of other people.

Although, the mechanisms of mind-reading are culturally-determined and people, belonging to various cultures, may speak different languages and have unique means of non-verbal communication, the very capacity for mind-reading is an inborn quality of Homo sapiens.

Moreover, we need to speak about social transmission or ability to pass information (knowledge and skills) to the succeeding generation (Whiten, 1999). This trait can be observed in every geographical region, every country and every culture.

Naturally, people belonging to various societies have their unique means of social transmission1 but in itself, the ability for social transmission is universal and innate. In addition, this pattern of group behavior could be found even in the most primitive societies.

In contrast, there are some properties, which can be called cultural elaborations. One of them is the idea of social contract or the necessity for establishing rules, compulsory for everyone. They were virtually non-existent in gregarious communities. Such principle of group behavior as egalitarianism or the belief that people are created equal in terms of their rights is also a cultural elaboration.

This means that it emerged only in the course of historical development and that it was not present in the early forms of human society. Thus, we can argue that human group behavior has been shaped by evolutionary forces and by people’s interactions with one another.


Similar Patterns

The findings of primatologists and anthropologists indicate that non-human primates such as chimpanzees or baboons adhere to the principle of territoriality (Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 2007, p 321). They define their living areas, and other representatives of the troop acknowledge this territorial claim. Provided that someone invades their territory, non-human primates defend their claims by force (International Primatological Society, 1986).

One should take it into consideration that monkeys establish both physical and social boundaries of their territory. For instance, within each troop of monkeys, there are some groups that normally occupy larger living territories, than others do; normally, these are adult alpha males which are usually in the most privileged position.

It should be noted that monkeys, especially chimpanzees pay close attention to the protection of their living areas. They patrol their territories and search for any signs of intrusion such as nests. Both males and females participate in such patrols (Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 2007, p 322). Primatologists registered chimpanzees’ attacks on other monkeys, trying to intrude into their territory (Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 2007, 322).

One should also bear in mind that monkeys display respect for the territorial claims of their congeners. The study, carried out by International Primatological Society, shows that titi monkeys usually avoid coming closely to the neighbors’ home range (1986, p 133).

Of course, we cannot say for sure whether such deference can be explained by the respect for one’s congeners or by the fear of retaliation, but the same can be said about the motives of human beings.

Another phenomenon that can be found among human beings and non-human primates is the so-called “dear enemy recognition”. This means that an animal displays more hostility toward complete strangers rather than to neighbors from adjacent territories (Wilson, 2000, p 582).

This approach is supposed to minimize the efforts, required to for the protection of one’s territory. This conduct is also typical of human beings, although sometimes it takes such extreme forms as xenophobia.

Non-human primates achieve the right for territory in the following ways:

  1. by birth, i.e. they are born to the troop;
  2. by force
  3. through acceptance of other members of the troop (Sapolsky, 2002).

To some degree, these ways of establishing and defending territory are similar to those ones of human beings. In some cases, territorial behavior of human beings is only a cognitive elaboration of the primate case.

Properties, inherent only in human beings

There are several patterns of managing territorial relations that are typical only of a human being. One of them is the principle of rituality, which implies that only a certain type of behavior is appropriate for a certain territory or location (Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 2007).

The most widespread and ancient example is sacred places or those locations to which people attach spiritual importance. We can draw such an example as inappropriate dress code, which is usually viewed as violation of rituality principle. The new approach to territoriality can be explained by cognitive and intellectual development of our species.

The concept of privacy is also inherent only in Homo sapiens. Non-human primates also try to seclude themselves from other members of their troop, but in this case, we can speak only about physical boundaries, rather than spiritual or intellectual ones. So, we can say that human beings have broadened the very notion of territoriality.

There are several situations illustrating how human beings have evolved the notion of territoriality. For instance, breaking into a conversation can be regarded as violation of one’s intellectual territory (Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 2007, p 337). Thus, one can maintain that human beings interpret territory from physical, social, intellectual and even religious standpoints.

When discussing human territoriality, one should not underestimate the importance of possession and property (Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 2007). Humans view the safety of their property as an inseparable part of territorial security.

In fact, the very willingness to possess physical objects without actually using them for a long time can be found only in human beings. There is no other species that shares this trait with Homo sapiens. Overall, the qualities, which we have described, distinguish human beings from any other biological species, living on the planet.

Cultural elaborations and Innate Qualities

In this case, it is also possible to divide these behavioral patterns into two large groups: those properties that were elaborated in the course of cultural development and those qualities that are innate to human beings. As far as cultural elaborations are concerned, we should primarily speak about rituality and the concept of privacy. These notions have evolved due to the development of religious and philosophical thought.

In contrast to modern society, primitive communities attached little value to personal privacy or to the rituality principle; more attention was paid to the protection of physical boundaries, rather than social ones. This argument is also supported by the fact that the concepts of privacy and rituality are culturally-determined.

For example, in Japan a person’s desire for privacy can be interpreted as secrecy or even rudeness, whereas in England or the United States it is the cornerstone of social relations (Altman & Chemers, 1984, p 85).

However, some aspects of human territoriality are innate, and one of them is close attention, paid to the safety of personal possessions. it cannot be viewed as cultural elaboration because to some extent, such psychological trait can be observed among all human beings, irrespective of their cultural or national origins. Moreover, such quality of humans can be found in every form of human society even in the most primitive one.


The group behavior of human beings and their territoriality has been shaped by several forces:

  1. common ancestry with non-human primates;
  2. evolutionary process;
  3. people’s cooperation with one another.

Overall, it is quite difficult to determine which of these factors has played the most crucial role. However, those human properties, which resemble the behavior of primates, are much more numerous and noticeable, than those that distinguish Homo sapiens from other biological species. This fact can be used to support the theory of evolution, advocated by Charles Darwin and his followers.

Reference List

Altman I. & Chemers M. (1984). Culture and environment. NY: CUP Archive.

Cords M. (1997). Friendships, Alliances, Reciprocity and Repair. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

DeWaal. F.(1992). Chimpanzee Politics. NY: Clarendon Press.

Eibl-Eibesfeldt. I. (2007). Human Ethology. London Transaction Publishers.

International Primatological Society (1986). Primate ecology and conservation. CUP Archive.

Sapolsky. R. (2002). A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons. Simon and Schuster.

Whiten. A. (1999). “The Evolution of Deep Social Mind in Humans”. In The descent of mind: psychological perspectives on hominid evolution edited by Corballis M & Lea S. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Whiten A. & Byrne R. (1997) Machiavellian Intelligence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wilson. E. (2000). Sociobiology: the new synthesis. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wrangham R. (1995). Apes Cultures and Missing Links. The Leaky Foundation, pp 1-9


1 In this case, we need to speak about oral and/or written ways of passing information from one generation to another.

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