Opinion: Can chimps be kind? Maybe if humans tried to teach them.

Among primates, humans are unique in how they have evolved their social behavior and kindness toward others. Researchers came to this conclusion after observing the behavior of chimpanzees.
(Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)

To the editor: The article describes “new research” showing that chimpanzees did not continue to pull a lever to deliver peanuts to other chimps without getting peanuts themselves. The researchers’ interpretation: Chimps are not kind to one another. In other words, chimps are selfish but humans can be selfless. (“Chimpanzees may be helpful, but humans are the only primates that are kind to others, study suggests,” Dec. 20)

The research does not justify the conclusions.

First, researchers assume falsely that human do behave kindly without being rewarded; that is, that we can be selfless. Humans do not always receive tangible or monetary rewards for kind behavior, but most of us are conditioned to feel good for helping others. 

Another problem is using the same terms (like “kind” and “helpful”) to describe both humans and nonhumans. We say that humans are kind based on a whole host of behaviors, not just one. Thus, saying that chimps are not kind because in a very limited circumstance a few wouldn’t deliver a peanut to another chimp without being rewarded is a stretch.


Better would be to try to understand the variables that cause chimps to deliver peanuts to other chimps and to see if they could be taught to do it without receiving tangible rewards.

Henry D. Schlinger Jr., Los Angeles

The writer is a professor of psychology at Cal State Los Angeles.

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion and Facebook


Get our weekly Opinion newsletter