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What can we learn about human nature from our relatives, the chimpanzees? Research Paper

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Updated: Dec 12th, 2019


Human beings represent the most evolved primates and their brains are the most developed among the mammals of the order Primate. Through millenniums of evolution, human beings have developed complex cultures and behavioral traits that characterize humans. However, primatologists have suggested that characteristics of human nature might not be limited to humans and primates such as the chimpanzee might share some of these features.

Chimpanzees are unique among the primate group since they are man’s closest living relatives. Anthropologists believe that by studying these primates, we can gain insight into human behavior. Renowned primatologists such as Frans de Waal declare that the behavior of chimpanzees can provide important clues about human nature. With this in mind, this paper will engage in an in-depth analysis of what we can learn about human nature from our relatives, the chimpanzees.

Lessons from Chimpanzees

  • Social Life

Human social life can be informed by studying the chimpanzees. Specifically, chimpanzees demonstrate that primates thrive better in a communal setting than they do in isolation. Chimpanzees normally live in colonies, which are made up of males, females, and the young ones.

While all the members of the colony engage in activities such as foraging and hunting, to sustain themselves, the group stays together as a community. The importance of social interactions in promoting peace is highlighted by studying chimpanzees. When groups of chimpanzees exist live together, they engage in activity such as mutual grooming, which reinforces the relationships between them. Because of this reinforced relationship, a social bond is created among the members of the group.

The bond helps to promote peace and foster reconciliation when conflicts arise. In the same way, human beings are likely to coexist peacefully if they engage in activities that foster social bonds. People who engage in communal activities that strengthen social bonds are unlikely to act aggressively against each other.

Self-interest is natural and it helps in the creation of behavior that is beneficial for all. In chimpanzee communities, many animals live together and act in a cooperative manner to ensure their survival. Due to self-interest, individuals avoid engaging in behavior that would lead to the collapse of the troop.

The young ones in the groups are taken care of by their mothers and the rest of the group. Kupperman contends that the self-interest of human beings led to the formation of agreements that create constraints on various forms of harmful behavior (101). People therefore act in a cooperative manner out of self-interest.

The ability of human beings to adapt themselves to their environment can be learnt from chimpanzees. The main distinguishing factor of human beings from other primates is their ability to adapt to their environment and use tools to increase efficiency. This ability is not confined to humans and chimpanzees demonstrate their adaptively in the wild.

Chimpanzees have been observed to use stone tools to crack hard nuts and sticks to assist in the gathering of food. While this actions are very primitive compared to the ability that human beings possess, they demonstrate that it is in human nature to adapt to the environment.

  • Social Order

Studies on chimpanzees explain the sense of property observed in humans. Of all the primates, human beings have the most complex system of ownership and succession with laws being in place to protect ownership. People have an intuitive understanding of “mine” and “your” and a series of social norms and governance structures are in place to manage the relationship that exists because of property.

However, this sense of property is not restricted to humans and other primates have at least elements of ownership (Brosnan 10). When chimpanzees encounter food that is held by another member, they show the behavior of begging or sharing of food instead of taking it by force, therefore suggesting that these primates understand the concept of ownership.

The chimpanzees show respect for objects possessed by others and they do not try to take these objects even if the possessor is smaller and unable to defend his property through force. This suggests that “respect for possession” is not a product of human culture and civilization but rather a product of nature.

Chimpanzees offer insight on the ways through which humans control each other’s behavior in the community. These primates demonstrate that ostracizing, as a way of encouraging conformity in order to increase social cohesion, is a natural concept. Ostracism, which is the practice of rejecting or excluding certain individuals, is deeply embedded in human society.

However, this practice is discouraged in modern society since it can undermine the legal system in place and promote rejection of minority groups such as gays and lesbians. However, studies on chimpanzees show that ostracism is natural and bears positive outcomes. In chimpanzee communities, social order is maintained by the habit of shunning and isolating individuals who act in a defiant manner.

Ostracizing therefore plays an integral role in ensuring that the group cohesion is maintained and conforming behavior is encouraged among the members. Human beings also practice ostracism as a form of punishment for non-conforming or deviant behavior of individuals in society. Studies on the behavior of chimpanzees show that using ostracizing is an effective method of maintaining social order. Ostracizing helps to encourage conformity to group norms and therefore foster good relationships among individuals.

  • Culture

Development of culture has been assumed to be a strictly human function. However, primatologists demonstrate that culture exists in chimpanzee colonies. Chimpanzees that come from different geographical locations exhibit varying cultures.

As such, these primates display multiple cultural traits in the same way that human beings do. From this, we can learn that human culture is a product of nature. This should lead to an appreciation of the fact that different communities exhibit different languages, eating habits, traditions, dressing, and so on.

We can gain an understanding about the human learning process by observing how chimpanzees learn from each other and pass down behavior from the older to the younger generations. Older members of the colony show young ones how to behave and teach new skills on them.

This active teaching increases the chances of survival for the chimpanzees as the knowledge necessary for survival is acquired and used by the young ones. Learning and cognition is therefore natural for primates including human beings. From studying chimpanzees, it is evident that human beings are naturally inclined to learn from others and pass down information and knowledge from one generation to the next.

Insight into communicative patterns by human beings can be gained from observing chimpanzees. Specifically, clues about nonverbal communication can be seen from these primates.

Communication is an integral part of human life and communication has played a major role in the advancement of human civilization. In addition to the verbal communication, humans make use of gestures many non-verbal cues. Frans de Waal suggests that nonverbal communication is a natural form of communication since gestures are used by most primates (22).

  • War and Aggression

It has long been assumed that violence is an inherent part of human nature. This assumption has been reinforced by the many instances of war and aggression carried out by human beings for centuries. Research on chimpanzees indicates that violence might be an innate attribute of primates.

Groups of chimpanzees engage in aggressive behavior and violence against outsiders and sometimes against members of their own colony. However, these primates tend to avoid aggression and instead coexist peacefully if they can. This behavior is similar to that of humans who are prone to acts of aggression against others.

In addition to this, chimpanzees form coalitions in order to strengthen their attacks. Chimpanzees are likely to engage in coalitional aggression where a number of chimpanzees gang up to attack a common enemy. This strategy is preferred since it results in a high likelihood of winning while minimizing the costs of aggression to the individual. Human beings are also in the habit of forming coalitions with each other in order to strengthen their attack.

Another lesson on aggression from chimpanzees is that it is mostly confined to males. Frans de Waal observes that males were likely to gang up against out-group males and initiate attacks against them (80). Male aggressions are also more likely to escalate into deadly attacks. On the other hand, females are unlikely to engage in coalitional aggression and their conflicts rarely escalate to deadly levels. This is similar to human beings where men are more aggressive and play a bigger role in the proliferation of war compared to women.

  • Sexuality

Some issues of human sexuality can be learnt from observing chimpanzees. Human beings regard incest as a taboo and all societies refrain from this practice. However, there are doubts as to whether this taboo is a purely cultural product or a product of nature.

The study of chimpanzees suggests that the incest taboo is a law of nature that has permeated all cultures. Primatologists document that chimpanzees avoid incest on their own accord and young females are strongly attracted to unfamiliar males whom they seek outside their own community (Frans de Waal 22).

Some lessons on human behavior concerning sex can be learnt from chimpanzees. While chimpanzees are not monogamous, their sex life is not completely promiscuous. Frans de Waal states that the sexual intercourse among chimpanzees is subject to clearly defined rules (22).

In some cases, males are keen to demonstrate their sexual dominance and protect their sexual partners. The dominant male will chase away the other males in the colony who try to mate with his females. This can be compared to the family unity where the male guards all sexual rights and privileges in the institute.


Chimpanzees are commonly used for comparison with humans to understand some issues on human nature. This paper has engaged in a discussion of the lessons on human nature that can be learnt from chimpanzees. It has demonstrated that there are great similarities between the social life of humans and chimpanzees.

Both perform better in communal settings and individuals cooperate with each other for mutual interest. Concepts such as respect for property and social cohesion are common in both primates. The paper has shown that violence is a part of human nature and males are the greater aggressors. The common sexual conducts have also been highlighted. Through this exploration of chimpanzee nature, the natural basis of some human behavior can be recognized.

Works Cited

Brosnan, Sarah. “Property in nonhuman primates”. Origins of ownership of property. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development 132.1 (2011): 9–22. Web.

Frans de Waal, Frans. Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes. NY: JHU Press, 2007. Print.

Kupperman, Joel. Theories of Human Nature. Boston: Hackett Publishing, 2010. Print.

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