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How a chimpanzee views a video of an infant chimp from another group being killed gives a sense of how human morality and social norms might have evolved. So says Claudia Rudolf von Rohr of the University of Zurich in Switzerland, lead author of a paper in Springer’s journal Human Nature. It provides the first evidence that chimpanzees, like humans, are sensitive to the appropriateness of behaviors, especially those directed toward infants. It also shows that these primates might only take action when a member of their own group is being harmed.
The researchers filmed two social groups of chimpanzees living in two Swiss zoological gardens while the animals repeatedly viewed film clips. The films portrayed the actions of other chimps unknown to them. The control clip showed chimps doing neutral activities such as walking or cracking nuts. The experimental clips included aggressive scenes, such as an infant chimpanzee being killed by its own kind, a small colobus monkey being hunted and killed by chimps, and socially aggressive behavior between chimpanzee adults.