Chimpanzee mourns death of infant... or just corpse fascination?

Here’s a story from the Max Planck Institute:

Excerpt from

For the first time, MPI researchers report in detail how a chimpanzee mother responds to the death of her infant. The chimpanzee mother shows behaviours not typically seen directed toward live infants, such as placing her fingers against the neck and laying the infant’s body on the ground to watch it from a distance. The observations of Katherine Cronin and Edwin van Leeuwen provide unique insights into how chimpanzees, one of humans’ closest primate relatives, learn about death. Their commentary appears online this week in the American Journal of Primatology.

After watching the video and reading the article, I couldn’t help feel a pang of sympathy for the chimpanzee, apparently mourning the loss of its infant. However, it is interesting to note that we may be importing our own biases onto this event of “primate mourning”; it is one the first observed incidents like this, which makes me immediately skeptical… I would imagine that reactions to death and loss in primate species would have been documented by now - but that is only my assumption looking through ignorant eyes on the topic.

Another possible reading of this situation is the following - primates are usually observed carrying their deceased infants with them for days and weeks - is this an extreme form of inability to let go of one’s deceased offspring, or merely protection from scavengers, or something similar?

I put the question out to the better informed - what is your opinion?

Don’t elephants also mourn their dead? Think I read something like that somewhere, once, but could also just be remembering a typical camp-fire story not based on any facts whatsoever. :-\ Makes more sense to me for animals (specifically mammals) to mourn their dead on some level, because animals can’t understand death the same way humans can. Unless one believes that animals are somehow tuned into some kind of ‘understanding of the cycle of life’ stuff. Humans should be rational enough to know that death is a natural and inevitable end to life. And yet, humans need all this nonsense about after-lives etc to make us feel better when a loved one dies. I get really annoyed when people start rambling “oh it will be all right, she’s in a better place now…” I always want to react with something like “yeah, she always did like worms, too bad she is no longer conscious to appreciate the role they play in decomposition…” >:D

I think consciousness is an evolutionary process and the higher a particular animal is on the “consciousness scale” the more it will be affected by the death of a baby. Hence dolphins seem to crowd around a dead baby for a while, elephants do the same (I have personally witnessed this), but not so for example ducks (on my farm I see this daily). Also I notice that Muscovy ducks are aware of the danger of yellow bill kites snatching their chicks and they tend to hide under bushes etc to avoid attack, a ‘consciousness’ of pending danger id you like which seems to stem from learning.
Whether animals mourn in the human sense is IMHO a human construct/sentiment and so is ‘fascination’; maybe they don’t grasp what’s the matter with the baby and wait for it to show signs of life, up to the point where instinct kicks in and they move on.
A chimpanzee is high on the consciousness scale I would guess, so it is feasible that it is mourning/sad and even crying.

i had gotten two kittens, who grew up together. they were inseperable. the boy disapeared, and i found his body a week later. the girl, was definately not herself. she wasnt playing or cuddling. i daresay, her personality changed, without him around.
from my point of view, they do realise that there is a missing element. a queen cries for her kittens when they are given homes, bitches carry puppies around that died. whether it’s out of ignorance, i really cant tell.
isnt the success of the mammal attributed to it’s nurturing? then again, insects are successful too.

Good points everyone!

Anybody know Jane Goodall’s number? Haha
I’d love to rack her brains about this one…
Try this!
Next time you are in Nelspruit Mbombela a visit is a good way to see how great these animals are.

Fantastic! I will certainly do so if I’m ever that side
Thanks :slight_smile:

Different stategies - while insects generally do not nurture, they make up for their shoddy parenting by churning out far more young than mammals. They rely on the survival of a small fraction of a large number.


Does immorality enhance evolution?

You’re imposing an anthropic principle upon primates - there is no such thing as immorality in primates; evolution occurs for the good of the species, never the gene. I would say that whether the primates are “moral” or “immoral” makes no difference - evolution will still occur. If primates develop a sense of empathy (which they have) then it will become beneficial in the sense that it will increase inter-personal relationships and could end up in proliferation. On the other hand, chimps have been known to take other chimps out to the edge of a field, and brutally beat them, rip their genitals off, etc; this could bode well evolutionarily as well - it depends how the dice fall. It’s hard to draw a correlation/causation from isolated happenstances.

Does empathy retard evolution?

I’m not so sure that there ain’t. Primates dish out punishment. For example, an annoying youngster may receive a slap from an adult. The rudimentary simian social system is obvious. And what is a social system if not a set of rules - a collection of rights and wrongs? Therefore morality and immorality applies. I’m not saying that we necessarily understand their morality, but we can certainly deduce its existence.

evolution occurs for the good of the species, never the gene.
Can you please clarify and/or support this statement? Evolution is not generally though to occur [i]for[/i] anything in particular. ;)


Not sure I’m following the question to the tee … but if the insect’s morality requires of her to make lots of young, and she does not, then she is acting immorally (by insect standards), and will probably not see her genes travel far into the future. If the mammal acts immorally by having more offspring than she can nurture, then ditto. They suffer extinction not because there is anything special or sinister about morality per se, but simply because they did not make use of the best procreational strategy for their species at the time.


I was thinking along the lines of what humans would regard as moral and the effect thereof upon adaptability. In the longer term, evolution favours the “most adaptable” rather than the “best adapted”. Having large numbers of offspring of which only a few survive seems to enhance a more adaptable species than pampering all offspring to maturity and parenthood. Humans find the insect style of procreation reprehensible within their own species because of the high child mortality rate. Evolution is a cruel proses and altruism might be interfering with it. It’s not a comforting thought…

Yeah but what is moral for an insect may not be for a human, since humans have a long procreation cycle that results in a single, or at best 2 or 3, or if you’re an utter freak, 8 offspring. Nothing like an insect that lays hundreds or thousands of eggs. In our situation, nurturing offspring is what allows us to survive, physiologically we’re unable to follow the strategy of an insect.

That humans and insects require different behavioural patterns for survival is self-evident.

Mr. & Mrs. Goody have three children and nurture them very carefully until all of them reach adulthood and become parents in turn. Mr. & Mrs. Bady have eight children, five of whom die in a challenging survival contest and three reach adulthood and become parents in turn. The population growth rate would be the same in both cases, but would the Goodies not be precluding evolution and the Badies enhancing it?

The salient question is not whether caring for the weak and the ill saves the species from extinction, but whether it stymies evolution. If it does, should we ignore it or reconsider our morals?

You seem to think evolution has a certain direction it wishes to take us if we’d just stop getting in the way.

I think that not nurturing our children (who are weak and incompetent at birth) will lead to a 100% mortality rate, driving our species to extinction. That is really bad for our evolution.

I certainly don’t believe that evolution pursues a predestined course, if that is what you imply. What I propose is that a life form that has lost its ability to adapt to a changing environment can in fact become vulnerable to extinction, as has happened to numerous species that previously existed.

I think that not nurturing our children (who are weak and incompetent at birth) will lead to a 100% mortality rate, driving our species to extinction. That is really bad for our evolution.
Agreed. Should our objective be the long term welfare of the species (and I phrase that as a hypothesis) the matter becomes one of the [i]extent[/i] to which we nurture. With no nurture whatsoever, no baby would survive. But Mr. & Mrs. Bady were not quite that cruel. Three of their kids made it.

I want to emphasize that I am conducting this debate purely from an academic viewpoint - I am proposing no course of action.

You are, though, setting up a false dichotomy… What about Couple Goody has 5 kids, nurtures all of them, and they all survive, vs Couple Bady that also have 5 kids, but only 2 survive.

Evolution picks whoever can procreate the best… Couple Goody wins?

In a broad sense, a species’ “morality” can be viewed as the collection of its usual social behaviours. When contemplating the evolutionary aspects of morality, one must be careful to separate a genetic (and hence heritable) propensity for learning and/or carrying forward group behaviours from the specifics of such behaviours. Put simply, one must distinguish the gene from the meme (even though it may not be easy to do so).

The gene may be beneficial while the meme may not. In herding and grouping organisms, including humans, the gene, in tight collaboration with the memes it facilitates, has clearly had evolutionary benefits else it would not have become so prevalent and influential. On the other hand, the memes that exploit the gene could at a stroke turn from being beneficial to being detrimental by a simple change of circumstances or environment. If such a change should happen, individuals who are less inclined to follow group behaviours could begin to be favoured, which may result in the reduction of the gene’s frequency or even its disappearance altogether.

There thus appears to be a strong interdependence between the genetic and memetic aspects of species morality, and losing sight of this can only lead to a muddying of the issues.