As the species with the most highly evolved language, you’d think humans would be better at using it to help people around us. Wrong! Lately, we’ve used our words to bring back pre-civil rights race discrimination, nominated a Big Pharma scion to America’s highest health-related post, and named an Australian ferry after a meme.
While we’ve been busy wreaking havoc on one another with our A+ communication skills, our closest great ape relatives, the chimpanzees, have been using their linguistic abilities to warn others that they’re in danger, say scientists in a new Science Advances article.
Through a series of experiments they conducted on wild chimpanzees in Uganda’s Budongo Forest, the scientists, led by Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology primatologist Catherine Crockford, Ph.D., found that chimps will use unique actions and vocalizations in order to steer others from harm’s way — a far cry from humans failing to speak up when, say, global warming threatens to drown everyone on the coasts.
While chimps have been observed warning others about imminent danger in the past, what wasn’t clear was whether chimps that perceive a threat actually modify their behavior because they understand that their neighbors are ignorant of the danger. It’s been hard to rule out the possibility that they simply react to changes in their neighbors’ behavior as they sense danger.
After the first part of their study, which confirmed that at least one-third of the chimps will use their bodies and eyes to point toward a threat (in this case, a fake snake) so that others can be alerted to it, the researchers conducted an experiment to see how chimps would respond when they couldn’t see the individual they were supposed to warn.
They did so using pre-recorded sounds of chimps who had either run into a snake or encountered nothing, playing these sounds through a loudspeaker in the forest. The hypothesis was that the former sound would serve as a warning and, more importantly, that the latter — suggesting that the chimp in the recording didn’t know about the snake — would cause the listening chimp to yell out a warning when it encountered one in real life. Sure enough, that’s what the researchers observed in the wild, discovering that chimps will yell out a series of “alert hoos” when they want to warn nearby pals of the imminent danger.
These observations support the idea that chimps really do modify their behavior in order to alert their neighbors, going out of their way for the benefit of the group. To the researchers, these observations support the idea that chimp communication actually evolved to factor in the needs of other individuals, in turn suggesting that these apes are more attuned to the needs of others than we once thought. While it’s not clear whether these impulses to warn one another are emotionally driven, it does seem that they are borne out of the animals’ social cognitive abilities.
For a long time, scientists thought humans were the only ones with the ability to see things from another individual’s perspective — although our recent behavior certainly suggests otherwise.
If that alone doesn’t make you feel ashamed about human behavior, take into account the fact that, among the great apes, chimps actually have a reputation for being raging assholes, warring with neighboring tribes for fun, killing ex-tyrants, and occasionally killing each other’s babies. If even these jerks can get their shit together to be helpful once in a while, we have no excuse not to do the same.