Chimpanzees – Cooperative or Competitive?

Considering the fact that Chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes, share 99% identical DNA with human beings, it’s no surprise that we might at times find their behaviour strikingly familiar to ours. In an interesting article in New York Times, writer Carl Zimmer suggested that human beings might have inherited the cooperative nature of chimpanzees “perhaps before the human and ape lineages divided”. He cited other series of experiments which produced the same results as what we see in the video – that Chimpanzees not only cooperate when there is a promise of reward, they also help out at simple tasks like picking up a dropped sponge.

Despite such findings on the cooperative nature of chimpanzees, people are still under the general impression that they are violent animals. Indeed, extensive studies have highlighted that their society is one that is characterized by aggression, whereby succession is determined by conflict. Competition is rife as male chimpanzees fight to achieve a dominant status. Violence is also often displayed to other chimpanzee groups.

The question then seems to be what is the “true nature” of chimpanzees? It is important that social factors ought be taken into account, as there is evidence that suggests that chimpanzees’ ability to cooperate is influenced by factors like tolerance constraints. Perhaps the gender of the chimpanzee might also affect the extent of cooperation or conflict. So far, field observations have provided unclear results of the cooperative behavior of wild chimpanzees. It remains to be explored if competition or cooperation is the more usual behavior of these animals. I believe that whether chimpanzees display hostile or helpful behavior depends greatly on the situation they are in and the presence of other animals around. Ultimately, they are just like humans – moodswings and all.


“Chimpanzee Problem Solving by Cooperation” by National Geographic Youtube Channel, 7 December 2008. (accessed on 8 April 2010)

“Chimpanzees Live In Small Family¬†Groups, Are Aggressive And Often A Violent Society”, by J. Harrison. Chimpanzee Information: Chimpanzee Behaviour, 18 January 2010. (accessed on 8 April 2010)

“Chimps Display a Hallmark of Human Behaviour: Cooperation”, by C. Zimmer. The New York Times, 3 March 2006 (accessed on 8 April 2010)

M. N. Muller & J. C. Mitani, 2005. Conflict and Cooperation in Wild Chimpanzees. Advances in the Study of Behavior, 35: 275-299

A. P. Melis, B. Hare & M. Tomasello, 2006. Engineering cooperation in chimpanzees: tolerance constraints on cooperation, 75(2): 275-286

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