Chimp & Human Societies: What’s the Key Difference?

At an NG Live event earlier this week, primatologist and NG Explorer Jill Pruetz and Nobel Laureate in Economics Roger Myerson engaged in a conversation around “What Makes a Society Successful?”.

After opening remarks by each guest, National Geographic Weekend radio host Boyd Matson brought them together and steered the topics, taking questions from the audience as well. Amazement at the complexity of chimpanzee relationships and behavior was common, as was interest in Myerson’s vision of how governments might run more smoothly and enjoy more support from their citizens.

Through it all, the thing that seemed to captivate everyone most though was how many attitudes and behaviors that we think of as “human” are shared by chimps as well. To list just a few, Jill described instances of chimps:


peacefully accepting it when others don’t share

making tools for hunting

adopting orphans

males getting jealous of each other

juveniles carrying and playing with “dolls” (namely the bodies of other small animals they accidentally killed)

having groups of specific friends

remembering past kindnesses and conflicts

having individual habits when playing or relaxing at the watering hole

and much more.


The Big Question

So the big question is: Given all these similarities, what is the most important difference between chimp and human society?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.


Learn More

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NG Emerging Explorer Jill Pruetz

Roger Myerson at University of Chicago


Other Big Questions

Could We Control Other People’s Minds? Should We?

Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. He is currently beginning a new role as communications director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of nationalgeographic.com for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history.
  • Ken

    The desire to teach seems to be much stronger in human societies. Human societies also seem to blog more often than chimp societies. I wonder if there’s a connection…

  • Yassir islam

    The main difference between chimp and human society is that we put them in cages and conduct unnecessary experiments on them involving pain and torture. Chimps dont do that to us.

  • Andrew Howley

    It’s a trade off, Ken. As a human with lots of opportunities to teach and blog, I sometimes think I’d still rather have opposable toes.

  • Dan Ahmad

    I think humans have escaped Darwinian selection preferences, and I think that is an important difference. Where chimps still prefer to mate with alpha males and likely males have preference for healthier females, humans are now relying on technology and thus no longer need to be very selective at all to ensure successful birth and ample resources for offspring.

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