Emotions in Chimpanzees

Language is not everything. Robert Yerkes, for one, preferred to emphasize that chimpanzees had human-like emotions . Yerkes was a gentle man who loved animals. In his book Almost Human (1925) Yerkes cites many examples of human-like behavior in great apes, including chimpanzees. For example:

What story, related by Yerkes makes it sound like a chimp can empathize with an injured human?

Chimpita...took safe refuge in a mango-tree and refused to come to his keeper. "So," says Madam Abreu, "I went to the tree and, speaking to him, pretended that I was injured in the arm and suffering. Immediately, on seeing that I was in trouble, he jumped from the tree, and coming to me held my arm and kissed it strongly. And so we were able to catch him." (p.124)

Of course, this is an anecdote. It would have impressed Romanes back in 1884. But anecdotes are not very good forms of scientific evidence. They are essentially stories, and who is to say if they are reported accurately? All sorts of outlandish stories exist in the culture around us; we do not accept them as scientific evidence. Why should stories of animal behavior be any different?

What are some arguments in defense of reporting anecdotes about animal behavior?

Fentress (1992) made a different case, arguing that anecdotes are a valuable source of insights into animal behavior. Faulkes (1993) strongly agreed, calling anecdotes a "gold mine" for inspiring future research.

Consider the following example from Terrace's book Nim. Terrace was famous for his skeptical stance about chimp language. But he was impressed by the chimp's capacity for emotion. He reported this anecdote, which could inspire controlled studies, but which also speaks for itself if it is accurately reported.

What anecdote about chimpanzee empathy was reported by Terrace?

Tears brought out especially tender behavior on Nim's part. I once saw him rush over to Jennie while she was crying, leap into her arms, and stare intently at her eyes. He then touched her cheeks very gingerly and gently tried to wipe away her tears. (Terrace, 1979, p.38)

Like Yerkes, Terrace was touched by the chimpanzee's display of empathy. Perhaps in our intellectual life, especially as regards language and comprehensive planning, humans are unique on earth. However, in our emotional lives, we seem to have a lot in common with non-human animals.

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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey