Do Chimps Understand Death?

by Laurie McAndish King on April 30, 2010

The Atlantic published an article by Edward Tenner describing similarities between humans and non-human primates in responding to death:

“The Los Angeles Times reports new evidence of non-human primates’ understanding of life and death: “Some chimpanzees seem to grieve similarly to humans in the face of a fellow chimp’s death, two new studies have found, appearing to comfort the dying, experience trauma after death and have trouble letting go.

“The research is also described by the Scientific American Web site. Of course this isn’t the first news of animal grief. There’s Bongo Marie, the heroine of the title anecdote of Eugene Linden’s The Parrot’s Lament, for example. And there are African elephants who seem to explore the mysteries of the fate of departed family members in books like Cynthia Moss’s Elephant Memories.” 

The rest of the article, published April 28, 2010,  is here.

It makes me wonder whether humans are qualitatively different from non-humans.

It also makes me wonder why I care.

Why do we ask—and attempt to answer—this question? Does the answer matter? If I knew the answer was clearly and empirically established (not hypothetically, and not based on religious belief), what difference would it make? Would I do anything differently?

  • Would the answer change the way I think and feel about using animals for medical research?
  • Would I stop swatting mosquitoes? … or swat them, without guilt?
  • Would I pray differently?
  • Would I think differently about artificial intelligence?

Are any of my actions now based on an assumption that I know the answer to that question? It’s possible that they are, even if I am not aware of my assumption.

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