Chimps, Theory of Mind, and Death

There are many stories in the news today about the remarkable behavior of our closest living relatives, chimpanzees.  Based on genetic and fossil evidence, it seems likely that we last shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees approximately 6-7 million years ago.

As reported by Michael Balter in Science, chimps living in a zoo consoled a dying relative/groupmate and then grieved her death:

In November of 2008, a chimpanzee in her 50s known as Pansy became lethargic and obviously ill at the Blair Drummond Safari and Adventure Park in the United Kingdom. Three other adults, including Pansy’s 20-year-old daughter Rosie, began tending to her, grooming her, and sleeping nearby instead of in their own nesting areas. Pansy continued to deteriorate over the next few weeks, until one day her breathing suddenly became erratic. During the 10 minutes before Pansy’s death, the others groomed and caressed her constantly, and Rosie remained near her mother during the night. Keepers removed Pansy’s body the next day, and the adult chimps remained unusually subdued for nearly a week.

As described in some of the other stories about Pansy and her family/groupmates, this grieving included a loss of appetite after Pansy’s death and an overall lethargy indicative of depression.  Balter supplements his story by discussing other recently published studies regarding the severe grieving that chimp mothers undergo when an infant dies:

In a second example of chimpanzee grieving, a research group led by Dora Biro, a zoologist at the University of Oxford in the U.K., observed two chimp mothers carrying the remains of their dead infants for weeks. The observations were made in the forests of Bossou, Guinea, where primatologists have been studying wild chimps for 3 decades. In 2003, an epidemic of respiratory disease broke out at Bossou, killing five chimps. Two were infants, 1-year-old Jimato and 2-year-old Veve. The mothers of the infants carried their dead bodies around on their backs for 68 and 19 days, respectively, even as they dried out and became mummified. They brushed flies away from the babies, groomed them regularly, and allowed other chimps—including other young animals—to poke at the bodies, lift their limbs, and even carry them around for short distances.

Although research into whether chimps have a “theory of mind” — the ability to attribute mental states to others and understand that others’ mental states can be different from one’s own — has suggested they do, this theory of mind is limited to the first level (one other conspecific) whereas humans have a hypertrophied theory of mind which allows us to attribute mental states to others on several levels (e.g., Tom knows that Harry thinks that Sally is going to dinner tonight).

If anyone had any doubts about whether chimps have a theory of mind, this consoling and grieving behavior should lay those doubts to rest.  They clearly do.  What does any of this have to do with supernatural thinking or religion?

It seems that a necessary — but not sufficient — condition of the ability to think about supernatural agents is a theory of mind.  As I have noted in several previous posts, autistics who lack a theory of mind are unable to understand spirit or god concepts.

In her book Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion, the primatologist Barbara King suggests that the origins of religion can be found in the intensely social behavior of primates, particularly chimps.  Although many of King’s arguments are speculative or wrong, she is correct to suggest that a necessary aspect of supernatural thinking is a theory of mind.

If chimps had another faculty which humans possess — what is known as “commonsense dualism” or the idea that the mind is somehow separate from the body — we might expect that chimps would not merely console dying relatives and grieve their deaths, but also that they would bury their dead.

Many archaeologists consider burial of the dead — which first appears in the human fossil record approximately 100,000 years ago — to be indicative of supernatural thinking.  Though supernatural thinking is not the equivalent of religion, this brings us much closer to the origins of those aspects of mind which support the ability to be religious.

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