Home > Uncategorized > Do Chimpanzees Have An “Innate Sense Of Fairness”? No. No, they don’t.

Do Chimpanzees Have An “Innate Sense Of Fairness”? No. No, they don’t.

OK I have been in a slump and not writing or blogging. My bad.

But this one thing  has been driving me crazy, so I guess its time to write. A good friend of mine, Mark Baer, (whose work on changing how divorce is handled–out of court–I follow and enthusiastically support) is one of many who espouse the notion that studies suggest chimps have a “sense of fairness.”  (He posted a video of an experiment involving grapes and cucumbers in his LinkedIn group. ) The chimps are given cucumber and are happy to eat it until one get grapes. Then the second one saw  saw the other one—in a cage like his—was getting grapes,nt pieces of cucumber for the same work. Soon he threw back the cucumber.  He’s expressing… something.“ This is unfair” says the cuked chimp—right? No. I don’t think so.

This notion (That the expression is “I see this as unfair”) struck me immediately as anthropomorphic and just illogical. It FELT wrong. (Full disclosure. I do not have a degree in anthropology OR a PhD. I just think a lot—and well.)

Is the grape deprived chimp angry? Sure. Frustrated? Sure.  Chimps get that way. Even dogs and cats do at times. Irritation is not anthropomorphic or innate ONLY to “higher” intelligence or to primates.  But I think this expression, this cucumber throwing,  is an expression of  greed and chimp pique- not a “sense of fairness.” I will explain why.

After all, in the wild,  no animal would throw away food. Most likely, the best food is grabbed by the dominant chimp(s), but the less dominant animal in the chimp group does not reject his or her  “lesser”  food in protest. So at a MINIMUM this action is an artifact of the test –where the chimps are not competing for food and can ONLY seek to protest by throwing.

Chimps throw things. They are one of the few primates that do. Most of us have seen or heard of the feces throwing by chimps in zoos. Unless the humans are eating grapes  the chimps want—and no one has reported this—then the throwing is not a message “this is unfair”. Unless “unfair” is “you are out there and I am in here.” Possible, but no one has pontificated this theory.

One chimp plans ahead and throws stones at viewers he hides them, and slyly aims them at his audience, This, scientists say, shows they have a mental capacity for abstract thought. “This comes very close to what is known as “theory of mind,” which is the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others, and to understand that others have thoughts, desires and more that are different from one’s own. Empathy, deception (as for Santino) and other qualities usually only reserved for humans can be linked to this process.” Some see more than one outcome to the contrived experiment, because sometimes the chimps took whatever they got, in this case raisins.

Not so clear.

In the case of the stone throwing chimpamseet, scientists attributes the “why” of throwing to… dominance. “A lot of great apes, especially dominant males, throw stuff at people at zoos,” he said. “And I would think that this is something that comes naturally to them when performing their dominance displays. These are often aimed at making other apes move out of the way and, in effect, accept him as the boss.” (“Zoo Chimp Makes Elaborate Plots to Attack Humans”– emphasis added.)

Notice no one seems to know what wild chimps actually do vis a vis sharing, or throwing. No one has yet claimed to see a “fair play” scenario in the wild. “Proctor and her colleagues cite other studies to back up their claim that chimps are sensitive to unfairness — such as anecdotal, non-experimental reports of chimps negotiating over the division of meat, or leafy branches. But such reports aren’t yet rigorous enough to resolve the debate.” (“Do chimps have a sense of fair play? Study adds to evolutionary debate.”)

Some scientists really want to say this is part of the evolution of human consciousness… but I am not at all swayed. I don’t think consciousness “evolved”—but that is another whole issue. (Email me for further discussion.) They say “”We’ve concluded that chimpanzees not only get very close to the human sense of fairness, but the animals may actually have exactly the same preferences as our own species,” co-author Frans de Waal, director of Emory’s Living Links Center, said in a university news release.” (supra)

Of course, these researchers conveniently ignore the fact that the so called “ultimatum game” which gives the players the change to get NOTHING if they think an offer to split a given resource (windfall) was “unfair”  is not always played to the same outcome in less competitive cultures. Think about it—why is nothing better than something is? It’s not.  In less competitive cultures, the recipient of a given division of the total windfall ALWAYS takes it. (As I myself would.)

From an expert:

The Ultimatum Game: One round only, and anonymously.  Player 1 is given a sum of money to divide between himself and the unknown Player 2.  Player 2 can either accept or reject the deal; no negotiation, no second chance.  If Player 2 rejects the deal, no one gets anything.

What’s the right division?… Nothing or take what you get.] It takes less than a moment’s thought to realize this is specious, not to mention wrong.  Why is the sacrifice an example of an evolved sense of justice or fairness, and not an example of unevolved envy?  Like a child who smashes the toy his brother got for Xmas? “ See “The Ultimatum Game Is A Trap.

So, my friends… I may lack a PhD–  but the modest author of this article? I think he has one. And I’m with him.

All these research “tests” on animals are extremely artificial. The chimp is not competing for food, s/he is fed every day. One game they have learned is press button, get food. When  they want a grape, press the button and discover the game is suddenly changed, and they don’t get the expected reward, they get miffed. Can they go compete for and GET the grape?  No. Can they make ANY choice at all to fix or correct the rules of  the game? No. If they were in a pack and were dominant MIGHT they get a delicious sweet grape  by throwing something? Yes. What do they have to throw? The cucumber.

Ergo—throw cucumber at dominant chimp—er, scientist.

End of experiment. NOTHING proved about fairness. It also proves—to me at least—that humans have tunnel vision, Our culture is all we see. To insist that what is “fair” to us is not ”fair” to every human everywhere–now there’s a uniquely human trait. (Not one I prefer to emulate though.)  For more on this  see Sway;The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior , by Ori Brafman, Rom Brafman

“Why is it so difficult to sell a plummeting stock or end a doomed relationship? Why do we listen to advice just because it came from someone “important”? Why are we more likely to fall in love when there’s danger involved? In Sway, renowned organizational thinker Ori Brafman and his brother, psychologist Rom Brafman, answer all these questions and more.”


But do not read this book unless you dare learn that you aren’t as smart as you thought you were. That in fact, none of us is. So throw that cucumber at the authors, because it just ain’t fair.


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