Are Chimpanzees Capable of Understanding and Recognizing Emotions?

It is widely known that some wild animals have a certain instinct to be noble towards human beings. We have all heard stories of how dolphins have saved human lives by keeping them from drowning, or how dog and cat owner's can rely on their pets' loving and comforting them during a time of gloom or even protecting them during a time of danger. “But what about a Labrador retriever that barked for an hour in the snow to summon help for a stranger who had fallen into a river; or Beauty, a horse that, while swimming in a rushing river to try and save her colt, nudged a stranger toward the safety of the shore before rescuing her foal, questions scientist and author of Beauty in the Beasts: True Stories of Animals Who Choose to Do Good, Kristin Von Kreisler” (Steindorf). Stories like these seem to show that animals are capable of experiencing some of the same strong feelings that humans can experience - feelings of virtue, courage, compassion, or even morality. Are these animals capable of understanding and recognizing emotions? Do they have feelings? There is no better animal to study in search for an answer to these questions, and in the quest for understanding the importance of animal diversity and adaptation concerning the issue of animals and the human-like emotions they experience, than man's closest living relative, the chimpanzee.

Chimpanzees are very similar to human beings.  One can place a chimpanzee and a human next to each other and point out several physical attributes that are similar, or even the same, between both animals: they both have hands, feet, and legs that resemble one another’s; both have eyes, a mouth, and a nose in comparatively the same areas on the face; and both human’s and chimpanzee’s body parts are relatively the same in size and proportion to their bodies.  But what about the amazing similarities that one cannot point out by just looking and comparing their physical characteristics?  There have been uncountable studies performed on this very subject.  One scientist in particular, professor of primate behavior Frans B.M. de Waal, has devoted much of his career to researching the differences and similarities between humans and nonhuman primates, with an emphasis on chimpanzees.  In 1977 the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta “established a Living Links Center (LLC) at the Yerkes field station in Lawrenceville, Georgia.  The center’s director, de Waal, is very fond of pointing out that human nuclear DNA appears to be 98.4 percent identical to chimpanzee DNA” (  Some of the studies performed here have helped us realize that “chimpanzees have warfare, some form of political system, and democracy – so that low-ranking individuals can determine to some extent who will be the high-ranking individuals” (  These are only a few of the amazing discoveries found about the similarities between humans and chimpanzees since the development of the center.

One recorded incident of chimpanzees exhibiting a human-like emotion is by Laura Tangley of U.S. News magazine.  She tells of how chimpanzees suffer from grief:                                                                                                                                        “In Tanzania, primatologists studying chimpanzee behavior record the death of Flo, a troop’s 50-year-old matriarch.              Throughout the following day, Flo’s son, Flint, sits beside his mother’s lifeless body, occasionally taking her hand and             whimpering.  Over the next few weeks, Flint grows increasingly listless, withdrawing from the troop – despite his             siblings’ efforts to bring him back – and refusing food.  Three weeks after Flo’s death, the formerly healthy young             chimp is dead, too.”

Yet another recorded incident, which can be found in one of de Waal’s popular books about primate behavior, describes the first chimpanzee birth ever witnessed:                                                                                                                                        “Unexpectedly, the entire Yerkes chimp colony of about 200 animals gathered in silence around the mother-to-be that            soon squatted and delivered the newborn into her own hands.  The mother’s closest companion, an elder female             named Atlanta (who has had quite a few infants of her own), screamed in reaction to the birth, embraced two other             chimpanzees, and spent the next several weeks closely attending the mother and her offspring.”                                  Is it possible that the emotional reaction of Atlanta reflected empathy, which is closely related to the understanding of what was happening to her friend in that particular situation? 

These are only a couple of examples of the human-like emotions that chimpanzees experience.  Still, the idea of animals feeling emotions remains controversial among many scientists.  Laura Tangley of U.S. News magazine states that these “reasearchers’ skepticism is fueled in part by their professional aversion to anthropomorphism, the very nonscientific tendency to attribute human qualities to nonhumans.”  Tangley also states that “many scientists say that it is impossible to prove animals have emotions using standard scientific methods – repeatable observations that can be manipulated in controlled experiments – leading them to conclude that such feelings must not exist.”  As you can see, that is why this is a very touchy and controversial subject.  Nowadays, with more and more research being done and the many advancements in science, we can look at the chimpanzee genome, and also their brain stimulus:                                                                                                                        “Some ‘hard’ scientific evidence for animal feelings show that there are many similarities between the brains of             humans and animals.  In animals and in humans, emotions seem to arise from ancient parts of the brain that are located            below the cortex, regions that have been conserved across many species throughout evolution.  The hormone             oxytocin is associated with both sexual activity and maternal bonding in people.  It is released, for example, when             mothers are nursing their infants.  Now it looks like as though the same hormone affects attachment among animals.”  These new discoveries and the uncountable amounts of scientific research are only the beginnings of the quest for understanding how similar the emotions that we feel are to those emotions that our closely related primate chimpanzees feel, and how important that information is to answering questions about animal adaptation and evolution.



Bunk, Steve. Interdisciplinary Study of Nonhuman Primates Gains Ground.                                                                      

Steindorf, Sara. Unbeastly Behavior. Christian Science Monitor. 05-29-2001.

Tangley, Laura. Animal Emotions.