Human Exceptionalism

Desperate to Make Chimps Human

As I write my book about the animal rights movement, I have noticed a crescendo of advocacy, er, studies, that seek to make chimps seem more human, the point–sometimes explicitly stated–to destroy human exceptionalism.

Along these lines is this “study” that claims chimps make more “rational decisions” than humans, based on a game. From the story in the UPI:

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig studied the chimp’s choices by using an economic game with two players. In the game, a human or chimpanzee who receives something of value can offer to share it with another. If the proposed share is rejected, neither player gets anything.

Humans typically make offers close to 50 percent of the reward. They also reject as unfair offers of significantly less than half of the reward, even though this choice means they get nothing.

The study, however, showed chimpanzees reliably made offers of substantially less than 50 percent, and accepted offers of any size, no matter how small. The researchers concluded chimpanzees do not show a willingness to make fair offers and reject unfair ones. In this way, they protect their self interest and are unwilling to pay a cost to punish someone they perceive as unfair.

No, it means that chimps don’t have a sense of what is “fair” or what is “just.” They want the treat and the game trains them how to get it. What happens to the other player doesn’t matter a whit to them. This isn’t “rational thinking” in the way we view the term as weighing pros and cons: it is the desire for the treat. Good grief!

Post Script: I have now obtained the original article from Science Vol.318, pp. 107-109.). The result–contrary to the media reporting–is precisely what I suggested above; that the human sense of fairness “distinguish us from our closest living relatives.” Now, I wonder why the media didn’t report the story that way?

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