Chimpanzees Respond to Death Like Humans: Evidence for Evolution or Creation? Part 1 (of 2)

Chimpanzees Respond to Death Like Humans: Evidence for Evolution or Creation? Part 1 (of 2)

Death is part of life—but nobody really wants to die. And nobody—even chimpanzees—wants to experience the loss of a family member or friend.

Psychologists from the University of Sterling in Great Britain and an international team of collaborators studied chimpanzees in captivity and in the wild, respectively, and results from both studies suggest these creatures respond to death in much the same way humans do.1 The researchers conclude this new insight (and other recent advances) blurs the distinction between humans and chimpanzees by supporting the emergence of human behavior via evolutionary processes.

According to one of the researchers, James Anderson,

Several phenomena have at one time or another been considered as setting humans apart from other species: reasoning ability, language ability, tool use, cultural variation, and self-awareness, for example…But science has provided strong evidence that the boundaries between us and other species are nowhere near to being as clearly defined as many people used to think. The awareness of death is another such psychological phenomenon.

Even though this insight appears—on the surface at least—to support the evolutionary framework, this research on chimps readily fits within a biblical worldview and provides added support for RTB’s human origins creation model.

This week I want to look in some detail at these two studies and comment on how the research from both can be understood from a biblical standpoint. Next week I will discuss how this work helps support RTB’s model for the origin of humanity.

Chimpanzees’ Response to Death

In the forests of Guinea, near Bossou, lives a small community of chimpanzees that scientists have monitored for nearly three decades. Confirming earlier observations, researchers noted twice over the course of the last five years instances in which chimpanzee infants died from a respiratory infection. In both cases, the mothers carried their infants’ bodies, for 19 days and 68 days, respectively, after death. The mothers exhibited extensive care of the dead infants, grooming them, sharing their day and night nests with them, etc. Clearly, a close connection exists between chimpanzee mothers and infants. These two mothers seemed unwilling to accept the death of their offspring.

Even more dramatic and poignant was the response of a chimpanzee community in captivity to the death of an elderly female called Pansy. When it became apparent Pansy was on the verge of death, the zookeepers decided to videotape her death process and the reaction of the community to her passing. The researchers observed that just prior to Pansy’s death the other chimps provided pre-death care that went beyond the routine grooming the group normally extend to each other. When Pansy finally died, her daughter stayed by her body in an all-night vigil. One of the males became aggressive, at one point striking her body, either out of frustration or in a futile attempt to revive her. Other members carefully examined her body to make sure that she was dead.

After Pansy’s corpse was removed from the chimpanzee enclosure, the surviving chimpanzees  avoided the place of death, presumably out of fear. Furthermore, the chimps remained subdued for several weeks, grooming at a lower than normal frequency and not eating as much food as usual.

Based on these two studies, it appears as if the research community has underestimated chimpanzees’ awareness of death. It seems chimps’ response to death is much more similar to that of humans than previously imagined. 

From an evolutionary perspective, it is argued that the similarity between human and chimpanzee awareness of death represents a capability their common ancestor possessed. As the two lineages separated, humans gradually attached ritualistic practices and religious beliefs to the death experience, but chimps did not.

A Biblical Perspective on Chimpanzee Awareness of Death

Though this research seems to substantiate human evolution, it can readily be accommodated within the framework of RTB’s creation model, and in fact, provides support for RTB’s view on hominids like Neanderthals and Homo erectus.

But before discussing these two points, a word of caution is in order. It is easy to anthropomorphize creatures like chimpanzees, attributing to them human qualities they don’t genuinely possess. This could easily occur while observing their response to death. Even though chimps react to death in ways that superficially resemble a human response, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have an awareness of death in the same way we do.

Still, it is evident that chimpanzees do grieve the loss of their community members and have some fear of dying. But this sense of loss and fear doesn’t have to be understood in evolutionary terms. Instead it could be viewed, from a biblical vantage point, as reflecting chimps’ “soulish” nature. According to the RTB model, birds and mammals are “soulish” creatures, meaning that although they lack spirits and are not made in the image of God, they do possess some emotional and intellectual capacities. Presumably, God endowed birds and mammals with soulishness as a way for them to form bonds with human beings, thereby allowing humans to use these creatures for the establishment of civilizations and for companionship.

It is interesting to note that the even in the instances observed by researchers, chimpanzees did not seem to engage in any sort of ritualistic or religious behavior in response to the death of a community member. I would maintain rituals and religion reflects God’s image. In this context, I would argue, the response chimpanzees exhibit toward death reflects their soulishness—not a deep evolutionary connection to human beings.

Part 1 | Part 2
  1. James R. Anderson et al., “Pan Thanatology,” Current Biology 20, no. 8 (April 27 2010): R349–R351; Dora Biro et al., “Chimpanzee Mothers at Bossou, Guinea Carry the Mummified Remains of Their Dead Infants,” Current Biology 20, no. 8 (April 27, 2010): R351–R352.