Chimps Are More Human Than You Think

'Redefining human' a chimpanzee demonstrating tool use

Most of you will be aware of the fact that we share an overwhelming amount of our DNA with Chimpanzees, one study even suggests that 99.4% of the most critical DNA sites are identical in the corresponding human and chimp genes (New Scientist, accessed 2011). This makes Chimpanzees our closest living relatives.


Upon cursory comparison there appear to be huge differences between such supposedly closely related species. Humans are sophisticated, civilized and highly intelligent, whereas chimpanzees live in the forests, and have not developed civilization, language, and architecture etc. These differences present themselves as some kind of chasm which separates us from them, however in recent years science has shown, disquietingly for some, that chimpanzees are much more like us than we ever imagined.


In 1960 primatologist Jane Goodall observed wild chimpanzees using stripped twigs to fish for termites, a discovery which prompted naturalist Louis Leakey to remark: “Now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as humans.” (The Jane Goodall Institute of Canada, accessed 2011). It was once thought that humans were the only creatures (save for some of our now extinct ancestors) to purposefully make and use tools, hence Leakey’s reaction.


Not only do chimpanzees use tools, different chimps from different regions have different methods of tool use, and customs – a phenomena which is described by some as culture (Gruber, Reynolds, Zuberbuhler, 2010).


Chimpanzee’s have also been shown to demonstrate non-reciprocal altruism (Science Daily, accessed 2011) – in other words chimpanzees help others without expectation of reward, something else that was once thought to be uniquely human.


They can also use symbolic communication (Taglialatela, Russell, Schaeffer, and Hopkins, 2011), (Hopkins and Leaven, 1998) – via manual gestures and sounds. Captive chimps have also been taught sign language (Wikipedia, accessed 2011).


Hopefully I have demonstrated that the chasm that appears to separate humans from chimpanzees is in fact illusory. Traits once considered to be unique and defining human characteristics can actually be seen in embryonic form in our cousins the chimpanzees, and this gives some insight into our own evolution. In future posts I shall look into human evolution, and examine how chimp-like creatures developed the traits outlined in this post to eventually become Homo sapiens.



GRUBER T, REYNOLDS V, and ZUBERBUHLER K (2010) ‘The knowns and unknowns of chimpanzee culture’, Communicative & Integrative Biology, 3 (3), May/June 2010, p. 221 – 223

HOPKINS W and LEAVENS D (1998) ‘Hand Use and Gestural Communication in Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes)’, Journal of Comparative Psychology, 112 (1), March 1998, p. 95 – 99

TAGLIALATELA P, RUSSELL J, SCHAEFFER J, and HOPKINS W (2011) ‘Chimpanzee Vocal Signaling Points to a Multimodal Origin of Human Language’, PLoS One, 6 (4), Published online 20 April 2011


New Scientist. Chimps are human, gene study implies. Online. Available from: [Accessed 20 November 2011]

Science Daily. Human-like Altruism Shown in Chimpanzees. Online. Available from: [Accessed 20 November 2011]

The Jane Goodall Institute of Canada. Chimp Behaviour – Tool Use. Online. Available from: [Accessed 20 November 2011]

Wikipedia. Washoe (chimpanzee). Online. Available from: [Accessed 20 November 2011]



Filed under Science

2 responses to “Chimps Are More Human Than You Think

  1. Interesting post. Incidentally I had a discussion with my housemate the other day about this, though both of us didn’t know much about it. That discussion ended up with me claiming that I don’t think Chimps are capable of ‘abstract thought’. But according to this do you think it could be true that they are capable of that? Something like the understanding of the meaning of beauty or love? Or maybe just to some extend?

    • Doctor Bad Sign

      It’s hard to say whether a chimp has a concept of love in an abstract sense, whether they could think about what love means and such, but they certainly have empathy and they grieve for others.

      This documentary is worth a look: . In it they talk about chimp culture, altruism, self awareness, personality etc. Jane Goodall even describes an incident that demonstrates that chimps are capable of having a sense of humour, and how they have the beginnings of spirituality.

      It’s definitely worth a watch.

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