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How ‘Teacher’ Steps in When Chimps Squabble

When things get rowdy in the playground at school, the teacher may decide to step in. As it turns out, chimpanzees do much the same thing.

A new study shows that older chimpanzees, both male and female, are involved in what scientists call “policing” to ensure that scuffles among younger chimps don’t get out of control. After all, good conflict management is crucial for keeping the group together and keeping life tolerable. 

The researchers observed and compared the behavior of four different captive chimpanzee groups in Switzerland, the U.K. and the Netherlands.

“We were lucky enough [in Switzerland] to observe a group of chimpanzees into which new females had recently been introduced and in which the ranking of the males was also being redefined,” said Claudia Rudolf von Rohr, the lead author of the study. “The stability of the group began to waver. This also occurs in the wild.”

The team observed how older members of the group stepped in to maintain the peace.

“It seems to be an expression of community concern,” primatologist Carel P. van Schaik explained.

He said that these arbitrator chimps don’t need to actively break up fights. In fact, they do surprisingly little, mostly just walking in between the chimps in conflict and sometimes briefly stopping. “This usually breaks up the fight.”

Not every chimpanzee makes a suitable arbitrator. It is primarily high-ranking males or females or animals who are highly respected in the group. Otherwise, the arbitrators are unable to end the conflict successfully. As with humans, there are also authorities among chimpanzees.

“The interest in community concern that is highly developed in us humans and forms the basis for our moral behavior is deeply rooted. It can also be observed in our closest relatives,” von Rohr said.

Dr. van Schaik added that the arbitrators earn additional respect from policing these tussles. And their behavior may derive from a sense of morality — an urge to serve the greater good — that could shed light on the origins of morality in humans.

“Morality must have gradually evolved from some roots,” Dr. van Schaik said. “It didn’t come out of nothing.”

The full study can be found here.