Cultured chimpanzees


Boesch doesn’t go as far as Frans de Waal in being willing to attribute to chimpanzees the rudiments of a moral sense that could be argued to underlie manifestations of what looks like righteous indignation at perceived unfairness. This, and the related question of capacity for shame or guilt which some observers have claimed to detect not only in apes but in other species, is perhaps the topic of most interest to a wider readership. But here, the hardcore opposition comes not only from psychologists or anthropologists but from philosophers. For Richard Joyce, for example, who in his The Evolution of Morality (2006) took issue directly with de Waal, “moral judgements cannot be legitimately and seriously ascribed to a non-language-user. Ergo, no moral judgements for chimps”. Well, maybe. Or maybe that categorical pronouncement will have to be revised in the face of well-validated empirical evidence which cannot be dismissed out of hand. Meanwhile, the topic on which Boesch reports some of his most intriguing observations is chimpanzees’ attitude to death. What conclusions are we to draw when they are seen to guard the bodies of dead group members, give immediate help to orphans, cover a dead body with leaves, and show signs of “sorrow” when leaving the dead and signs of “respect” by keeping youngsters at bay? “If”, says Boesch, “chimpanzees had an understanding of death, these behaviors would make perfect sense to us. If not, they make you wonder, to say the least”.

more from W. G. Runciman at the TLS here.