Tenuous links

I appreciate I'm probably being a bit unfair quoting from a brief news article, but is this a total non-story or what?

BBC: Study uncovers 'chimp cross code'

Experts studying chimpanzees while investigating the evolution of human social behaviour have uncovered their ability to safely cross roads.

They said the discovery has shown chimps' ability to cope with the risk of man-made situations…

It found the dominant adult males took up protective positions in the group when it was tasked with crossing roads…

The study has built on prior research showing that adult male monkeys took similar action to reduce the risk of being attacked by predators when travelling towards potentially unsafe areas, such as waterholes.

Kimberley Hockings, who worked on the study, said: "Road-crossing, a human-created challenge, presents a new situation that calls for flexibility of responses by chimpanzees to variations in perceived risk, helping to improve our understanding about the evolution of human social organisation.

In other words, what they appear to be saying is that, when presented with an unusual and/or potentially dangerous situation, dominant male chimps and monkeys take protective positions in front of and behind the group. An interesting, if pretty unsurprising observation.

But why do the people carrying out the study think that road-crossing presents a new situation that calls for flexibility of responses? Aren't the chimps simply giving a perfectly normal response when presented with a potentially risky situation? And why on earth do they think this is going to teach us anything about the evolution of human social behaviour? Don't loads of other animals (elephants, for example) do exactly the same thing?

I'm sure we can make certain inferences about the evolution of human behaviour by studying chimps, but I can't help feeling people read far too much into such studies. Why not study the chimps for their own sakes, rather than trying to bring in pretty tenuous links to human behaviour?

Writer and photographer Richard Carter, FCD is the founder of the Friends of Charles Darwin. He lives in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteFacebookTwitterNewsletterBooks
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