Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Introduction: mourning chimps understand what death is

Sometimes when reading about what is going on in war-torn nations across the globe, it looks as if us humans have forgotten how to mourn, how to show respect for the life of others. If only politicians... and world leaders were as open-minded and interested in others as world-class biologists are. Top biologists need to be open-minded on the one hand, and be very disciplined on the other. They have to avoid the trap of projecting their human thoughts and analysis on the species they are analyzing.

Even in the case of our closest cousin: chimpanzees. Researchers from the University of Stirling in Scotland reported in Current Biology Magazine on something quite remarkable. Chimpanzees do mourn the loss of lost ones. They seem to understand what death means. Not just that: the roles performed by the siblings of the deceased chimp seem to differ from those of others, not so closely related to him/her. Similar to what we see in human families.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs and our treatment of others

Isn't it sad that these pure emotions seem to have been forgotten in many war-torn or corrupt nation where emotionally-challenged leaders rule without paying attention to the consequence of their actions? How did that happen? Prof. Michael Wilson, of the University of Minnesota in the US states that - because the chimps in the University of Stirling research were living in a research park in Scotland - the outcome of the Stirling study might be related to the chimps there living in a kind of luxury situation with less struggle for life, more certainty concerning food etc. In that case they have more time for the higher level aspects of Maslow's pyramid of needs. The linkage to Abraham Maslow's main work could then explain why research in the wild didn't lead to similar results in the last 50 years, not even in top level research like that of Jane Goodall. 

Is there a link between Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs and the way we treat others? 
I.e. does poverty and inequality translate in us pricing other people's lives and emotions less than we would otherwise?

If that is the case, we could carefully extrapolate things to humans: maybe - when economic development goes the right way - human emotions and peaceful and loving interaction with others is positively influenced by wealth. In other words: poverty and inequality might trigger a state of mind that indeed has a negative impact on how we interact with our environment. Stated differently: the value of life is priced differently based on where we are in terms of Maslow's pyramid of needs.


If this extrapolation is correct, economic development in Emerging Markets is really not just something to worry about in Western nations. The reduced wealth gap between nations and the improved standard of living in Emerging countries might actually help improve the probability of peaceful and social interaction with others. And that is great news. We do not want to sound like unrealistic optimists or dreamers, but so far evidence in favor of actions that stimulate economic development in developing nations further as a means of stopping terrorism and war is mounting. The next decades might on the one hand bring lower growth in Western nations, but probably also far lower costs and reduced risks related to war although the risks related to ideological groups that thrive on inequality and terrorist philosophies should never be underestimated. But growth will make their story more difficult to sell.

Click here for a link to Deborah Franklin's original article.

And click here for links to videos showing the chimps behavior, from Current Biology.

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