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Dossier Primates et Sociétés : La sortie de l'état de nature

On the state of nature and social life: thinking about humans and chimpanzees1

État de nature et vie sociale: réflexions sur les êtres humains et les chimpanzés
Eliane Sebeika Rapchan


La similitude anatomique observée entre les chimpanzés et les humains a été reconnue depuis Linné. Les débats sur l'attribution de la condition humaine aux peuples non occidentaux datent du 15e siècle. Cependant, ce n’est qu’au 20e siècle que l’anthropologie sociale et culturelle a démontré, à travers l’ethnographie, la viabilité de l’idéal des Lumières d’une seule humanité universelle. Ce n’est que depuis les années 1960 que les connaissances concernant le comportement des chimpanzés sauvages nous ont informés sur leur habilité à produire et à utiliser des outils pour un apprentissage social ainsi que pour produire des modèles uniques de comportements collectifs. Depuis lors, la primatologie et la recherche sur l'évolution humaine ont aussi bien contribué à la compréhension d'une similitude, surprenante et inconfortable, des comportements humains et non-humains qu'à leurs différences profondes. La recherche basée sur les similitudes et les différences nous mène à la même impasse : la nature (dans ses aspects génétiques, biologiques et écologiques) est très influente dans la détermination des chimpanzés et des humains à vivre en tant qu'êtres sociaux ou socioculturels. Mais ce n'est pas tout. Compte tenu de ces découvertes, il est nécessaire de réfléchir aux nouvelles significations et à la nouvelle place de la nature dans nos connaissances de la vie sociale des chimpanzés et des humains. Tenant compte de la façon dont l'influence de la nature est profondément liée à la manière de la vie des chimpanzés et des humains, nous devons nous demander à quel point la nature influe sur les processus sociaux ou cultures et dans quelle mesure ces derniers sont autonomes. Même en acceptant mes propositions précédentes que seuls les humains produisent de la culture, définie comme un phénomène essentiellement symbolique, il est certain que les chimpanzés sauvages ont une vie sociale intense et complexe. En d'autres termes, ce texte propose une réflexion sur les degrés d'autonomie des phénomènes sociaux et culturels en ce qui concerne la prédisposition évolutionnaire à la vie sociale et à la production symbolique des chimpanzés et des hommes, ainsi que sur les aspects adaptatifs et non adaptatifs de ces phénomènes. Cette analyse a adopté la théorie de Rousseau "de l'État la Nature" et "l'État la Société" qui a été adapté à la primatologie moderne d'un point de vue anthropologique et a abouti à une invention de deux concepts : "nature primat social" et "nature culturelle humaine".

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Soumis 12 juillet 2012. Accepté 11 octobre 2012.

Texte intégral

1 On nature, culture and society: human and non-human behaviors

1.1 Against social, cultural and biological determinism

  • 1  Dedicated to César Ades (1943-2012), in memoriam. Acknowledgments: Walter Neves, Rui Murrieta and (...)

1Since the 1960s, primatologists have demonstrated that chimpanzee behavior, as with other non-human primates, is a complex phenomenon and is performed in dynamic social organizations and individual actions. We still do not know exactly how environment and genes influence such behaviors, but we are certain that they are not strictly defined by inheritance (Langergraber et al., 2010; Lycett, Collard and McGrew, 2010; Perry, 2006; Ripoll and Vauclair, 2001). This paper intends to analyze the debate concerning relationships between nature and society in non-dualistic terms. This article is neither a reflection on strict attributes of what is natural nor what is social nor an effort to define the conceptual differences of each one (Ingold, 2001a; Latour, 1993).

2Beginning with available published data, the purpose here is to analyze, the evolutionary characteristics and theoretical hypotheses on chimpanzee behavior such as, for example, neoteny (Barrickman, 2008; Gould, 1996, 1977; Montagu, 1989; Oppenheimer, 2003; Tomasello, 1999), social brain (Dunbar, 2003), theory of mind (Andrews, 2005; Premack and Woodruff, 1978; Tomasello and Call, 2008) and gestural-facial expressions (King, 2004a; Shanker and King, 2002; Parr, Cohen and de Waal, 2005; Pollick and De Waal, 2007). At the same time, recognizing the potential influence of the social interactions to on social learning over wild chimpanzee behavior, the intention is to reflect on about the degrees of dependence and autonomy of chimpanzees' chimpanzee social life in relation to their biological needs.

3In order to present some available results concerning this complex subject, it is necessary to go further than the disciplinary frontiers established between biological and social sciences. In order to do so, it is necessary to take a historical perspective and reflect on fundamental categories of Western thought, such as the rigid dualities related to the domain of nature or culture/society, and to consider how the historical definitions of the concepts ‘animal’ and ‘human’ have influenced their scientific counterparts (Ingold, 2002/1994; Tomasello and Call, 2008). It is also important to observe how these dualities have influenced contemporary research (Latour, 1993).

4Even now, there are primatologists who begin with defined and rigid references about what is inherited and what is acquired and restrict the analysis between spheres characterized as environment or as social behavior. At the same time, social scientists frequently reject the perspective that humans are simultaneously sociocultural beings and biological beings who live in a determined habitat and are submitted to evolutionary pressure.

1.2 Human nature or primate nature

5The debate about human nature for 17th and 18th century philosophers, especially Rousseau, considers that there was a hypothetical condition of human life that preceded the configuration of the modern state. Therefore, to them, there must have been human societies without such states that were closer to nature (Hobbes, 1996/1651; Locke, 1988/1689). Societies that have modern states, on the other hand and from the same perspective, would be independent of natural or animal determination.

6However, modern sociocultural anthropology has demonstrated that human societies without states are as complex as other human societies (Clastres, 1989). Rousseau (1762/2003), in addition to being an Enlightenment philosopher is also considered one of the fathers of anthropology by Lévi-Strauss (1962) because Rousseau adopted a point of view which, in a certain way, suggested a revision of conceptions about the differences among human cultures. Rousseau analyzed information brought from the so-called New World to elaborate his philosophical point of view. His conclusions subverted the implicit hierarchical values of the classification of humans in at the time.

7Rousseau affirmed that the social order associated with government and civilization was corrupted and that human nature is neither good nor bad, but modern societies can corrupt humans and human social relations. Considering this, what should we make of recent primatological discoveries about the social dynamics of wild chimpanzee populations? Do they offer any new points of view about “human nature”?

8In the last fifty years, primatologists have collected representative data about wild chimpanzee groups. As a consequence of this cumulative action of collecting and the interpreting fieldwork data (Rodseth et al., 1991) some primatologists began to argue that primate groups are societies (Stanford, 1998).

9Wild chimpanzee groups are hierarchical (Goodall, 1990). Males and females have status (Goodall, 2000; Hrdy, 2001). There is a diversity of behaviors among the groups of chimpanzees and diverse social positions observed in relation to sex, age and status (Wrangham et al., 1996). We do not know everything that we would like to about how such social characteristics vary from one group to the other, but at the end of the 1990s, there was already much behavioral information on each known chimpanzee population in Africa (Whiten et al., 2001; Wranghan et al., 1996).

10These studies showed that each group of chimpanzees has singular patterns of behaviors revealing that each one is different and each group is unique. In recent decades, the comparison of these different patterns inspired western primatologists to affirm that wild chimpanzees have “cultures”.

11Japanese primatologists have used a cultural perspective to analyze sets of behavioral variations in groups of the genus Macaca since the 1950s. Despite using the word “kaluchua”, which resembles the western and anthropomorphic word “culture”, Japanese primatologists were essentially talking about variations of individual and group behaviors influenced by a solid dialogue with the sociological perspectives.

12Tutin and McGrew (1978) observed variations between chimpanzee grooming behavior in Gombe and Mahale. They recognized these variations of behavior as “cultural”. But it was only in 1999 that a large group of world-renowned primatologists published the article “Cultures in Chimpanzees” (Whiten et al., 1999), which profoundly modified the relative scenery of the definition of humans.

13Since then, western primatologists have focused on the idea of “culture” in order to concentrate on transmission and variation of behaviors rather than on the idea of “society” to talk about collective dynamics. In a post-doctor research about papers published in 26 international journals, which had great impact on primatology, over a period of 12 years (1999 to 2011), Eliane Sebeika Rapchan found 101 articles referring to the idea of “culture” in relation to the wild chimpanzee behavior.

14Galef (2009, 2002, 1992) observed that we could compare the behavior of humans and animals emphasizing their differences or similarities. Most of the primatologists who study chimpanzee behavior prefer to analyze the similarities with emphasis on what they consider cultural phenomena. Galef (2009, 2002, 1992), on the other hand, prefers to emphasize the differences.

15The perspective adopted here will also highlight the similarities between humans and chimpanzees; however, the emphasis will rely on the social aspects of behavior. I consider, as Ingold (2002, 2001a, 1994), that it is not enough to qualify some phenomena as “culture”. Such phenomena have to be cultural. In other words, they must be symbolic.

16In fact, there is much more evidence in favor of the existence of chimpanzee societies than of chimpanzee cultures if we consider that culture is a symbolic phenomenon, as does the sociocultural anthropology perspective (Ingold, 2001ab; Klein, 2009/1999; Rapchan, 2011; Rapchan and Neves, 2005).

17Therefore, if chimpanzees produce collective behaviors that are not innate, and if we share with chimpanzees a common ancestry we can reflect on the possibility that the supposed “state of nature” defined by Rousseau does not only correspond to human societies without a state (Clastres, 1989) but also to the wild chimpanzee societies. Going further, and considering the entire anthropological debate following Rousseau on cultural relativism, all contemporary human societies simultaneously express equivalent capacities and diversity of choices. Therefore, from this perspective, all humans are equal.

18Considering this, could we affirm that there is a “primate nature” concept that could replace, revise and expand Rousseau's theory? Could this point of view succeed in diluting the rigid frontiers constructed by scientific knowledge between what is considered biological (including the nature and environment) and what is conceived as social?

2 Guidelines for thinking about chimpanzee behaviors as socio-natural phenomenon

2.1 Dialogues with Ingold and Latour

19It is a scientific consensus that the same research data, when they are good, can be analyzed from different methodological perspectives. Primatological data are like this. In the next sections, an analysis will be made of data on wild chimpanzee behavior considering the influence, or not, of rigid parameters of what is nature and of what is nurture in these results. In other words, primatological data will be analyzed from an anthropological (and heterodox) point of view.

20This analysis was inspired by the ideas of two contemporary social anthropologists, Tim Ingold and Bruno Latour. They have reflected on the relations between nature and society but they assume different theoretical references that will be considered complementary from the perspective adopted here. The findings on chimpanzee behavior will be treated, simultaneously, as scientific results, as expressions of sociocultural values and as phenomena that can or cannot be simultaneously natural and social.

21Studies on chimpanzees have registered their abilities with respect to communication (Arcadi, 2005, 2000; Arnold and Zuberbühler, 2008; Boesch, 1991; Burling, 1993; Clark and Wrangham, 1993; Kojima et al., 2003; Mitani, Hunley and Murdock, 1999; Mitani, Gros-Louis and Macedonia, 1996; Mitani et al., 1992; Pollick and De Waal. 2007; Shanker and King, 2002) and their capacity to evaluate social contexts (Byrne and Whiten, 1988; Call and Tomasello, 2008; Goodall, 1990; Hirata, 2009; King, 2004b, 2000; Parr, Cohen and De Waal, 2004; Perry, 2006; Stanford, 1998; Tomasello, 1999; Tomasello et al., 2005; Wrangham et al., 1996). Knowledge of their intelligence and their reactions in situations that researchers define as “unfair” is also a perspective that has been more widely adopted in recent years. In other words, chimpanzees were not indifferent to the welfare of members of their group (Silk et al., 2005) and exhibit empathy-based altruism but will not punish third-part transgression unless they were the victim (Riedl et al., 2012).

22So, nowadays, our own knowledge has been questioning our privileged position among living beings. Our knowledge is offering new explanations about the world (Latour, 1993) and about ourselves.

23Ingold (2003) reminds us that the definitions of humanity changed in relation to the historical and cultural changes. According to author (Ingold, 1994/2002), humanity has previously been defined as having the exclusive possession of language, reason, intelligence and moral conscience. Now, we are historical witnesses to the fact that primatological research is questioning this exclusiveness. Primatologists are demonstrating that we are simply “another unique species” (Foley, 1987).

24However, most primatologists, when analyzing chimpanzee behaviors, insist on the exclusive prevalence of the biological influence over all social processes. This analysis does not intend to annul the importance of the biological processes but emphasizes that it is also important to consider that chimpanzee behavior, as an extension of the chimpanzee as a being (Ingold, 2003), is an expression of each chimpanzee that lives in a determined group.

25In collective conditions and in defined situations, wild chimpanzees establish consistent interactions and seem to express coherence in relation to the patterns of the group and in relation to other chimpanzees' reactions. Some representative examples of these conditions include tool use (Assersohn et al., 2004; Davidson and McGrew, 2005; Deblauwe, 2009; Fowler and Sommer, 2007; Gruber et al., 2009; Hayashi, Mizuno and Matsuzawa, 2005; Hashimoto, Takeshi-Furuichi and Yasuko, 2000; Matsuzawa et al., 2006; McGrew, 2010; Mobius et al., 2008; Morgan and Abwe, 2006; O'hara and Lee, 2006; Van Shaik and Pradhan, 2003; Yamakoshi, Myowa-Yamakoshi, 2004; Whiten, Horner and De Waal, 2005), grooming (Bonnie and De Waal, 2006; Tutin and McGrew. 1978; Zamma, 2002), strategies for copulation (Stanford, 1998; Stumpf and Boesch, 2004; Towsend, Deschner and Zuberbühler, 2008; Wroblewski et al., 2009), parental care (Hirata, 2009; Hrdy, 2001, 2009) and the rain dance (Whiten et al., 2001). In these circumstances there is transmission of behaviors. Chimpanzees interact and adopt their group's patterns.

26Would these behavioral responses of each chimpanzee have influence on the other chimpanzees in such a way that would produce collective dynamics?

27Can we affirm that these collective entities offer the necessary conditions for chimpanzee survival and a context for multiple interactions produced by intelligent and social beings?

28We adopted Ingold's perspective in order to find some answers to these questions. According to Ingold, behavior is the “surface appearance of the activity of the whole organism in its environment” (Ingold, 2001a: 337). Therefore, we cannot consider that only genes or social relations can determine it.

3 Chimpanzees evolved to have social life. And then?

3.1 Some reflections on babies, communication, and intelligence

29Chimpanzees are social beings and have evolved to be social beings (Dunbar, 2003, 2004). We can affirm the same is true in regard to humans (Dunbar, 2003, 2004). Chimpanzees have characteristics that dispose them to social life and that make them dependent of their social groups such as neoteny, the capacity to recognize their group mates and the others, the ability to communicate by vocalization, facial and corporal expressions or the intelligence to comprehend and to act in relation to social dynamics. Chimpanzees have a social brain”.

30They are able to regard others and to act by taking into account the behavior of others. They have a modular intelligence and also have an emulative cognition.

31These are some of the most important traits that benefit chimpanzee social life. The beings who display these traits have the advantages of surviving by using the advantages offered by social contexts. This is valid, of course, for social beings.

32Gould (1977) affirmed that humans are a neotenous species of chimpanzees. For this author, juvenile chimpanzees have bone structures very similar to humans. However, chimpanzees seem to lose the ability to learn when they reach maturity.

33But what are the great advantages of neotenic traits that provided their selection in the evolutionary process of humans and chimpanzees? In order to analyze this, the learning capacities and the social relations will be emphasized.

34Neotenic traits have great evolutionary importance for humans (Leitão and Castelo-Branco, 2010). We can observe this considering how fragile human babies are compared to other primates (Silk, 1999) in terms of mobility, protection and survival (Bjorklund, 1997; Hrdy, 2001). These traits contradict common sense because they suggest that there is a strong relation between the prolonged immaturity and the extended time needed to acquire the necessary knowledge of social roles and the cultural heritage (Futuyama, 1997). On the other hand, our fragility contains our strength force.

35Neoteny is a phenomenon that is associated with parental care and this can include participation of allomothers, being all caregivers, including grandmothers, fathers, sisters, and others (Hrdy, 2001, 2009). It implies prolonged contact between adults and infants, which is the basis for cognitive development. The association of these phenomena probably improves social learning for humans.

36“Most primates live in some form of social group.” (Tomasello and Call, 2000: 191). In order to survive and procreate in a social group, it is necessary that individuals have the ability to learn and a flexibility of behavior (Tomasello and Call, 2000: 191). Primates also recognize individual group mates. They have the capacity to associate different behaviors and to use cues to predict other’s behaviors (Tomasello and Call, 2000: 191).

37After revising the bibliography about central traits of social intelligence “including deception, understanding of perception and intention, social learning, trading, cooperation, and regard for others”, Hirata (2009: 3) observed that many studies have demonstrated that chimpanzees are able to use social intelligence when prompted by selfish motives derived from interactions with others. However, there are other findings that indicate that chimpanzees act to benefit others. Mother-infant relations suggest that chimpanzees have pro-social behavior “involving regard for others” (Hirata, 2009: 3) that includes actions related to sharing food and objects (Hirata, 2009: 7), teaching by inhibition (Hirata, 2009: 7-8) and communication (Hirata, 2009: 8-9).

38Vocalization, corporal and facial expressions are behaviors associated with communication and, consequently, are very important for interactions inside the group. In the communication field, the majority of primatologists give priority to vocalic expressions of wild chimpanzees (Arcadi, 2000, 2005; Arnold and Zuberbühler, 2008; Burling, 1993; Clark and Wrangham, 1993; Crockford, 2004; Mitani, Hurley and Murdoch, 1999; Mitani, Gros-Louis and Macedonia, 1996; Mitani et al., 1992; Kojima, 2003). A minority of primatologists analyze communication mechanisms related to gestures or corporal-facial expressions (King, 2001a, 2004; Pollick and De Waal, 2007; Shanker and King, 2002). Despite the efforts of researchers such as Boesch (1991), Arnold and Zuberbühler (2008) in emphasizing the fact that vocalization produces meaning, there is stronger evidence in favor of the idea that vocalization is related to social organization. Indeed, according to several researchers, communication offers important information related to status (Stanford, 1998), to individuality (Mitani et al., 1996) or geographic variation in the vocalization (Mitani, Hunley and Murdock, 1999; Mitani et al., 1992).

39At the same time, there are some studies that provide evidence on the central role of actions, gestures and vocalizations (King, 2004ab; Shanker and King, 2002) and facial displays (Parr, Cohen and de Waal, 2004) in social relations among wild chimpanzees. Among them, King’s studies on communication contribute to understanding the social perspective of chimpanzee life. Adopting a perspective that refuses the rigid dualism between biological and cultural traits, King (2000) defends the co-construction perspective.

40The co-construction perspective refutes ecological or cultural determinism (King, 2000). It also does not isolate behavior from other factors (King, 2001). To King, there is neither pure cultural phenomena nor pure natural phenomena. When considering chimpanzees, both are inseparable.

41Despite the differences between King's approach and my point of view in relation to the notion of chimpanzee “cultures”, there are convergences with respect to the importance of the study of the social life of wild chimpanzees. King (2004) affirms that “chimpanzee cultures” are phenomena that can be registered using an ethnographic method because both anthropologists and primatologists are trying to register meanings when observing behaviors. I do not deny the value of recognizing the fact that, in many situations, primatologists confront the challenge of recording and maintaining rigorous data on chimpanzees that the register of data about chimpanzees be rigorous and, at same time, interpreting what this means.

42But there is a great difference between attributing meaning to behaviors and the behaviors that have meanings. The former focuses on primatological research, a situation in which the researcher tries to identify what causes or stimulates determined behavior. The latter focuses on anthropological research that emphasizes cultural phenomena, something that has symbolic meanings to whoever produces it (the native) and to whoever observes it (the ethnographer). Even considering that both have different points of view about these meanings, the native and ethnographer are symbolic beings.

43The same is not valid for primatological research. The relation between primatologists and chimpanzees is a relation between a symbolic being and a non-symbolic being.

44I agree with King that behavior is a complex phenomenon that presents substantial clues for comparing human and non-human primates. And I also acknowledge the value of her critique (King, 2004b: 196) when she disputes primatology approaches that treat chimpanzees as quantitative units of behavior. She points out that the studies on chimpanzee behavior are limited because they exclusively focus on the unity and the quantitative aspects of the phenomena.

45 Beginning with a non-dominant perspective compared to the dominant way of doing primatological research, King (2004b: 197) adopts the theory of dynamic systems (DST) to analyze social communication among wild chimpanzees. DST considers that “the elements of a system are internally related to each other, so that change in one results in change in another.” (King, 2004b: 195). This is a model for analyzing social relations resembles Max Weber's (1991/1922).

46Weber's model of social action adopts a perspective that considers that the individual influences the social life and vice-versa simultaneously. Social action is every individual action that influences the society and has social meaning. It is the common tendency of most individual social action in a determined direction that defines the social configuration and the tendency toward social transformation or permanence.

47King's (2004b: 205) concludes that, “Contingent actions are the creative core of African great ape social communication, and social communication is at the very heart of ape sociality.” Therefore, for King, the nucleus of sociability of the great apes is the interaction. She adopts an appropriate model to observe the social competence of wild chimpanzees.

48However, the great debate on the social competence of chimpanzees in relation to human societies and human cultures is strongly related to modular intelligence and to the theory of mind (ToM). Moreover, the evolution of the human mind is the central aspect of the history of human evolution (Dunbar, 2003: 163) and, until now, all models proposed are based on the evidence related to theories of modular intelligence and theories of mind.

3.2 Intentions and cognition

49In this section, chimpanzees and humans will be analyzed through models presented by Robin Dunbar and Michael Tomasello. These authors associate cognition and social life to verify similarities between chimpanzees and humans. These models propose good conditions for thinking about the evolutionary history of social primate cognition. Both authors base their theories on updated data. They also adopt multidisciplinary perspectives and both are very influential in several research areas (Venturini, 2010).

50According to Premack and Woodruff, “An individual has a theory of mind if he imputes mental states to himself and others.” (1978: 515). This capacity is observed universally in human adults.

51In 1978, Premack and Woodruff analyzed categories related to the states of mind of a chimpanzee named Sarah in a laboratory experiment. They analyzed Sarah's answers and proposed that these data offered good opportunities for distinguishing situations defined as guessing or knowing (Premack and Woodruff, 1978: 525).

52They observed that although the chimpanzee species has developed to the point of having a ToM, none could teach another to predict behaviors (Premack and Woodruff, 1978). Prediction involves a combination of cognitive capacities and the individual’s experience obtained through collective life.

53Dunbar (2003: 164) revised the “social brain hypothesis” to analyze the causes of the “unusually large neocortex” of primates. He compared the traditional ecological hypothesis with the proposition of Byrne and Whiten (1988). The ecological hypothesis associates the evolution of the brain size with the pressure exerted on individuals to solve ecological problems to survive. Tool production and tool use are some of the more expressive results of this process (Dunbar, 2003: 164). Byrne and Whiten (1988) suggest that primate brains differ from the non-primates because their social patterns are more complex.

54Dunbar's choice is based on the analysis of the solutions adopted to solve problems related to survival. To know if, for example, cooperation is the result of individual actions or collective actions is very important because the answer can reveal important aspects about primate cognition.

55Dunbar's conclusion favors the second hypothesis, although difficulties of interpretation remain. Collective life is organized by increasingly complex social bonds and constant cognitive challenges. This arrangement exercises pressure on the selection of an executive brain (mainly the neocortex).

56This process affects central aspects of social cognition such as the ability to predict behaviors (ToM), the evolution of the size of the group and the origins of language and culture inside the hominid lineage. According to Dunbar (2003: 177), there is a growing level of intentionality in the behavior of humans and chimpanzees: level two for chimpanzees and level four for behaviorally modern humans.

57Thirty years after Premack and Woodruff's publication (1978), Tomasello and Call (2008) reviewed the ToM problem in regard to chimpanzees. Nowadays, there are sufficient data, which confirm that great apes are able to perceive intentions of others (Tomasello and Call, 2008: 187). Chimpanzees are able to “understand goals and intentions of others as well as the perception and the knowledge of others” (Tomasello and Call, 2008: 191).

58Tomasello and Call (2008: 187) affirm that chimpanzees have a ToM, in a broad sense, despite the fact that the chimpanzee's ToM is not identical to the human ToM. Some years earlier, Tomasello et al. (2005: 676) suggested that “only human beings are biologically adapted for participating in collaborative activities involving shared goals and socially coordinated action plans (joint intentions).”

59Mithen (1996) examined the hypothesis about the similarity between chimpanzees and humans based on the modularity of the mind. He analyzed evidence obtained through research on primatology, cognitive sciences and paleoanthropology. Inspired by Karmiloff-Smith, Mithen asserts that humans and chimpanzees have both at least four mental modules of intelligence: technical, natural, social and communicative. The evidence indicates that the differences between them correspond to the operation of these modules. In chimpanzees, they operate independently, while in humans they operate in an integrated way.

60Evolutionary change modified the mind of modern humans. We do not understand yet what happened but the modules of the human mind were probably integrated, apparently without dramatic anatomical changes. Other authors maintain that the barriers among these modules disappeared, but the result is apparently the same. These modifications are probably related to the selection of the significance module in the evolutionary process of the human mind (Rapchan and Neves, 2005).

4 What changed? At what point are we similar?

4.1 Cultures, societies, humans and chimpanzees from an evolutionary point of view

61In order to organize some ideas about the qualities and characteristics of interactions of collective life of chimpanzees, it is necessary to review the two starting points initially proposed considering the concepts “primate social nature” and “human cultural nature”. The degree of autonomy of the dynamic of chimpanzee social relations and the legitimacy of a formulation of the idea of “primate nature” inspired by Rousseau are at their core.

62The “primate social nature” shared by chimpanzees and humans is, simultaneously, something indispensable to our lives, a precondition to existence and an evolutionary common heritage. For humans and chimpanzees the social condition of existence, social life and social behavior are primordial and essential. They are a distinguishing mark in our lineage.

63Therefore, our individual and collective behaviors are quintessential expressions of us. They are expressions of our dense and intricate relations with the environment, the social group and ourselves. This is our essential condition to existence. Without society there would not be chimpanzees, humans or any other social primates as we know, even considering that they are different types of social life. Society is our primary condition and it is not distinct from our natural or evolutionary condition.

64Culture is also a result of an evolutionary process (Klein, 1999/2009; Mithen, 1996) but it only appeared recently in behaviorally modern humans (Klein, 1999/2009; Mithen, 1996). Considering that culture, from an anthropological point of view, is derived from an essentially symbolic capacity, this means that when humans expressed their ability to produce culture, it was simultaneously expressed by burying the dead (Mithen, 1996), expanding tool kits and decorating them (Klein, 1999/2009), producing rock art and corporal decorations, such as jewelry, body paint, tattoos, and clothes.

65Fossilized artifacts such as collars, and ochre paint found in abalone shell have been found by paleoanthropologists, anthropologists and archaeologists in the sites as evidence of a long lineage of symbolic culture. And they are exclusively human remnants. Also culture is a totalizing phenomena (Mauss, 2000/1950; Rapchan and Neves, 2005) because, when it occurs, all the elements (natural or social) have a symbolic meaning. The entire human world is symbolic. Consequently, “human cultural nature” is a condition which, as “primate social nature” shared with chimpanzees, combines nature and culture, origin and present, the animal and the human, the social and the environment.

66There are no borders, no expressive differences between each component of these dualities, yet they have been reduced to such theoretical distinctions to facilitate analyses. The only considerable difference is that each human culture is singular in space and time, and partially sharing the same mind as other human cultures.

67To compare the preconditions for social life of chimpanzees and humans, emphasizing similarities between them, it is necessary to analyze whether chimpanzees are able to behave in a social context taking into account the influences of other individuals on their own behavior. It is important to stress here that the behavior of chimpanzees can be deeply social in the sense that an individuals' behavior is not isolated from the dynamics of the group and frequently influences and is influenced by others (Fragaszy, 2003). But how deep are these influences considering what we know about the mental capacities of chimpanzees?

68Researchers have been suggesting that there are different relative indicators of social behavior for humans and chimpanzees. I will explore them beginning with complementary perspectives: that behavior is just a complete being’s surface and visible expression and that animal behavior is an extension of the individuality of the animal and of its needs as a living being (Ingold, 2001a, 2003).

69Ingold (2001) observes that evolution endowed each human being with cognitive abilities. Therefore, humans learn their cultural practices, which guide their way of life, and these practices are reproduced from one generation to another. For Ingold, the reproduction of human cultural practices depends on individual cognitive capacities to teach and to learn in the same way, which depends on the group that maintains them and reproduces them as essential to their collective practices.

70Ingold (2001ab, 2003) affirms that only humans have effective intention of teaching and a capacity to do so considering that the action of teaching depends on effective symbolic changes among cultural beings. Cultural traditions also depend on collective conditions to exist because the collectivity allows them to be registered, memorized, expressed, reproduced and modified. This depends on mental capacities to interact with others and to interact with the cultural tradition as phenomena.

71Hirata (2009) associates every pro-social behavior of chimpanzees with their capacity to produce a ToM. But there is an intense debate concerning this. Povinelli and Vonk (1978) published an influential text suggesting the possibility of the capacity for chimpanzees to possess a ToM. But, years later, they published other papers criticizing the paradigms used to explore favorable evidence supporting the existence of a ToM in chimpanzees (Povinelli and Vonk, 2003, 2004) including the works of Tomasello, Call and their associates (Hare et al., 2000; Hare, Call and Tomasello, 2001; Call 2001; Tomasello, Call and Hare, 2003a, 2003b).

72Andrews (2005: 522) has analyzed this debate and asserts that it is much more important to explore possibilities of the “process of social cognition” of chimpanzees than the specific chimpanzee capacities of producing “attributing beliefs and desires”. Some years later, Tomasello and Call (2008: 187), based on research carried out from 1978 to 2008, reported that there is solid evidence that “chimpanzees understand the goals and intentions of others” but that there is no evidence that chimpanzees “recognize false beliefs”. Considering these results, they offered a “conclusion for the moment”. For them, chimpanzees have mental capacities to “understand others in terms of perception-goal psychology” but they do not have a “full-fledged, human-like belief-desire psychology”.

73Highly social animals, such as chimpanzees, not only are able to react to what others do but can also anticipate what others will do. This is necessary in cooperation as in competitive relations (Tomasello and Call, 2008: 187). Chimpanzees understand much more than only overt behaviors. They have a Theory of Mind in a broad sense (Tomasello and Call, 2008: 191) but they do not have a ToM in a strict sense.

74Therefore, from a perspective that is more behaviorist than mentalist, as suggested by Andrews (2005: 534), it is possible to consider chimpanzee social abilities as phenomena strongly related to complex social interactions and also to evolutionary cognitive characteristics. Chimpanzees use what they have learned from other experiences (and maybe they also use some cognitive skills) (Tomasello and Call 2008: 187) in several contexts. Chimpanzees also reproduce what they have learned in other contexts observing others, what they are doing or what they will do. This is not exactly identical to human social life but it is something sufficiently developed to be considered highly complex sociability and comparable to human social abilities.

75In a similar vein, Dunbar (2003: 171-172) observes that primate social groups are complex phenomena. He presents results of tested levels of intentional states using the ToM model to analyze behaviors of chimpanzees. The results obtained from chimpanzee behavior are similar to those obtained from 4 to 5 year-old human children. From Dunbar's perspective, one of the most important consequences is that these capacities are related to the size of primate social groups when associated with ecological and demographic variants (Dunbar, 2006).

76Dunbar has analyzed social intelligence, and he prefers explanations that associate cognitive evolutionary capacities and sociability. From his perspective, humans are members of a group of primates that “share a deep sociality that is predicated on relatively (…) advanced forms of social cognition.” (Dunbar, 2004: 100).

77Dunbar (2004: 100) contends that language evolved as a mechanism to to more efficiently establish social bonds in large groups. From this perspective, language is an expansion of grooming behavior. Chimpanzees use approximately 20% of their time grooming because it plays a fundamental role in sustaining their social relations. In contrast, if humans only used grooming behavior to maintain their social relationships instead of language they would need to spend about 40% of their time doing so because human societies are always more numerous than non-human primate societies; consequently much greater time would be needed for grooming.

78Human cognitive capacities evolved to produce language and, as Dunbar (2003) has already suggested, language is the mechanism that makes possible the dynamics of the social relationships in larger groups. Language and gossip are powerful mechanisms of social control against “those who take the benefits of sociality without paying the costs” (Dunbar, 2004: 100).

79Dunbar (2003: 171-2) also believes that social intelligence is a discreet specialized module, but he observes that it is deeply related to a complex network of cognitive, ecological and social elements that promote conditions for individuals to solve “specific problems” (Dunbar, 2003: 171-2).

80Tomasello (1999) relates the differences between cognitive capacities of chimpanzees and humans to the mechanisms of social cognition and cultural evolution. Tomasello (1999) asserts that the symbolic capacity is an exclusively human attribute. It is based on cognitive characteristics that have emerged recently in human evolutionary history. This symbolic capacity is the foundation for what the sociocultural anthropologists call "culture."

81All the social characteristics presented here suggest that there is much more evidence in favor of the existence of different levels of social abilities when we compare chimpanzees and humans. Considering social abilities and cognitive capacities simultaneously, it is perfectly reasonable to accept that the differences between chimpanzees and humans, on this level, are gradual.

82On the contrary, the capacity to produce symbols and consequently to produce culture seems to be an exclusively human characteristic and, in coming to such a conclusion, it is worth pointing out, that it is not based on a metaphysical point of view that intends to situate humans in a privileged position. It is a result of rigorous research and solid analysis.

83It is quite probable that the mental capacity to produce and reproduce symbols appeared abruptly. While this topic remains open to debate, and while gradual evolution is more the norm, according to a number of well known researchers such as Klein, it would seem more likely to be a case that symbolic capacity developed abruptly as proposed in the theory of Creative Revolution. (Klein, 2009), and not a gradual phenomenon (Klein, 2009; Klein & Edgar, 2005; Boyd & Silk, 2006; Lewin, 2005). When it appeared, the human capacity to produce culture certainly invaded all the spheres of human life. Even considering all the non-adaptive consequences of our symbolic capacity, it should correspond to such an enormous evolutionary advantage that it was fixed in our lineage (Rapchan and Neves, 2005).

84Rapchan and Neves (2005: 678-9) observed that until the 1970s, it was a consensual opinion that the first hominins already had complex mental characteristics that would be conducive to producing culture.

85There were great expectations about the first hominins ability to produce culture, yet in the last 20 years, everything has changed.

86Most paleoanthropologists currently believe that from 7 to 2 million years ago, chimpanzees and hominins were very similar. However, the first manifestations recognized as culture only date from 25 to 80,000 years ago, depending on the research (Mithen, 1996; Rapchan and Neves, 2005; Klein, 2009)

87Considering the data about the restricted manifestations of culture and about the profusion of sociability expressions in the primate lineage, it is plausible to defend the hypothesis that culture is a much more recent evolutionary phenomenon than society. In that sense, it is reasonable to affirm that the comparisons between chimpanzees and humans, based on similarities, would offer much more satisfactory results if they were based on social relationships rather than cultural abilities.

88Revisiting the starting point of this discussion, from Rousseau's point of view, human societies that existed in the "State of Nature" could survive without needing a state as an essential political structure. There are lots of ethnographic studies on human societies that did not adopt a state as a form of organization (Clastres, 1989; Cohen, 1977; Ingold, 2000/2004; Mann, 1986; Migdal, 2001; Skalník, 2009) and, for decades now, as a result of anthropological studies refuting this, the lack of a state is not considered a sign of inferiority. In fact, all anthropological thought demonstrates that human societies without states were never in a pure “state of nature”. Culture cannot be developed at all in the “state of nature”. Despite the anthropological misunderstandings of Rousseau, humans who have not organized a state can produce symbols as any other modern humans; therefore, humans live in a perpetual and inescapable “state of culture”.

89On the other hand, we share with chimpanzees a "State of Society." Both humans and chimpanzees have evolved to live collectively. This evolutionary process selected appropriate characteristics for collective life. We can only live in society and we only live through society. We depend on society to accomplish our ontology as living beings. Reinventing the ideas of Rousseau, I suggest that a "primate social nature" exists as well as "human cultural nature".

90Fortunately, many among us are already capable of recognizing the intrinsic relationships that exist among the biological, ecological and social factors when the subjects are primates, humans or not. This suggests that many researchers have been abandoning the positivist conceptions that reduce human complexity to a simple dualism, or to a singular determinism, in favor of adopting a perspective that considers the complex relationships between nature and culture. Nowadays, we also know that environmental, biological and social factors deeply influence individuals and society . However, we still don't know exactly how those complex relationships operate.

91We have good models and strong evidence, but we also have much to discover.

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1  Dedicated to César Ades (1943-2012), in memoriam. Acknowledgments: Walter Neves, Rui Murrieta and Alexandre Locci Martins have participated in drafting, changing ideas and reading an earlier version of the manuscript. Also, Neves and Murrieta allowed me to develop my post-doctoral project in the Laboratory for Human Evolutionary Studies (LEEH-IB/USP) where they are directors. Elisa Munhoz Cazorla helped me with the bibliographical research, particularly about communication, language and cognition. Gabriela Melo, Thomas Robert and Dominique Lestel invited me to participate in this dossier. The anonymous referees offered great contribution evaluating, asking and suggesting solutions. Jim Hesson ( revised the English. This work is a result of a research done with the support of Fundação Araucária/SETI (, through a scholarship granted to Eliane Sebeika Rapchan (from September 2010 to September 2011).

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Eliane Sebeika Rapchan, « On the state of nature and social life: thinking about humans and chimpanzees », Revue de primatologie [En ligne], 4 | 2012, document 5, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2012, consulté le 08 mars 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Eliane Sebeika Rapchan

Eliane Sebeika Rapchan, Rue Coronel Mendonça, 567-São Paulo–SP–Brasil–03409000,Dept. des Sciences Sociales (DCS)/Université de Maringá (UEM), Laboratoire d'Études Evolutives Humaines (LEEH)/Université de São Paulo (USP)
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