I’ve just found on CNN.com an article exploring in more depth the research I mentioned in yesterday’s post, which involves primatologist Frans de Waal and other scientists exploring through the study of chimpanzees whether humans are uniquely fair:

You might think of “morality” as special for humans, but there are elements of it that are found in the animal kingdom, says de Waal — namely, fairness and reciprocity. His latest study, published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that chimpanzees may show some of the same sensibility about fairness that humans do.

The popular belief that the natural world is based on competition is a simplification, de Waal says. The strength of one’s immune system, and the ability to find food, are also crucial. And many animals survive by cooperating.

“The struggle for life is not necessarily literally a struggle,” he said. “Humans are a highly cooperative species, and we can see in our close relatives where that comes from.” …

De Waal isn’t sure that his monkeys have what a philosopher would call a “concept of justice” in an intellectual sense. But the emotional reactions researchers have observed indicates that there is, at a more basic level, a sense of justice among them.

The article also includes some pushback from other scientists: 

So, does this mean that chimpanzees show the same sense of fairness as humans? Keith Jensen of the University of Manchester, who has conducted similar experiments in the past, isn’t so sure. His results did not show that chimpanzees have a sense of fairness.

Jensen is concerned about the results of this new study because it’s not clear that the responders knew that they could reject offers. None of the participants, human or chimp, ever rejected the offers of their partners.

“The fact that responders never rejected nonzero offers suggests that they were not sensitive to unfairness but were only motivated by getting food for themselves, regardless of the intentions of the proposers or the consequences for them,” he said in an e-mail.

You can read the full article here