Chimps fair or foul

I went to a conference a few years ago at the LSE; if you look at the speakers you’ll see why. Although it proved to be patchier than I’d hoped, I was captivated by Frans de Waal’s contribution, outlining some wonderful research on the social behaviour of apes. One highlight, which is now finally coming to publication, was the finding that chimpanzees judge reward not just on its instrumental value, but whether it is even-handed or otherwise. They reject a moderate reward if they see an unfamiliar ape get a better one. Good to know that apes throw their toys out of the pram as well.

The explanatory gloss on this is that apes have a ‘sense of fair play’. Another angle that comes to mind is that preferential reward may be seen as the forming of a dominance hierarchy, and the smart ape should make it clear that it’s not going to acquiesce -a nuclear threat to dissuade a minor loss.

Possibly this is merely talking at different levels of causation – the monkeys may have such a sense due to the need to hold their own in a fluctuating dominance hierarchy. It’s also very possible that my thought doesn’t fit with chimpanzee social structure at all. Regardless, it keeps the mind sharp to explore the gloss at least as much as the nuts and bolts of a study. Simian Cold War, or chimp village cricket: can you find a better tack?

6 thoughts on “Chimps fair or foul”

  1. Couple o’ nice links about Frans de Waal:
    His book, The Ape and the Sushi Master, covers culture in animals. It’s a fascinating read. First chapter:
    And a while back he published some research about monkeys and their sense of fair play. There’s an article at New Scientist here:
    Snippet: ” They trained capuchin monkeys, which are native to the forests of South America, to exchange a token for food. Once the monkeys were used to handling the tokens, Brosnan set them up in pairs and rewarded each in turn. If both received a piece of cucumber as a reward, they behaved as before. However, if Brosnan gave one a grape, which they considered a more prized morsel, the other often refused to accept the cucumber. Worse still, if one monkey was rewarded for doing nothing, then four times out of five the other refused to participate further (Nature, vol 425, p 297).”

  2. There is also some good stuff on this and other examples of fairness in James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds (the link goes to a brief review I wrote for this book).

  3. A BBC Nature programme demonstrated the grape experiment, and also showed the Monkeys placing nuts to dry the sun for a period of days to allow easier removal of their shells but the interesting thing was they always placed new nuts down before transporting the already dried nuts to a remote “anvil” for smashing the shell, it was fascinating to see them planning ahead.
    Unfortunately the BBC don’t seem to have permalinks to Nature programmes, but this article covers some of it,
    Just Started reading Wisdom of Crowds, its very good
    Also an online talk at ITConversations by Frans Da Waal

  4. I should say that the work described at the LSE all those moons ago might well have been the capuchin studies Matt links to, not the more recent chimp stuff I link to. I normally make a point of knowing my ape from my monkey, but time does take its toll.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: