Thursday, 21 January 2016

Friendly words


I recently stumbled on this item in Science News -  Chimp friendships are based on trust.

It almost goes without saying that trust is a defining element of genuine human friendship. Now, a report in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on January 14 suggests that the same holds true among chimpanzee pals. The findings suggest that friendship based on trust goes way, way back, the researchers say. "Humans largely trust only their friends with crucial resources or important secrets," says Jan Engelmann of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. "In our study, we investigated whether chimpanzees show a comparable pattern and extend trust selectively toward those individuals they are closely bonded with. Our findings suggest that they do indeed, and thus that current characteristics of human friendships have a long evolutionary history and extend to primate social bonds."

Not a particularly surprising outcome, but what exactly has been discovered here? Have we uncovered the fact that chimps trust their friends to a greater extent than other chimps?

Or have we reminded ourselves that "friendship" and "trust" are words with linked meanings? As the piece says - trust is a defining element of genuine human friendship. Trust could also be seen as a defining element of the word "friend" - a job for dictionaries rather than science.

Someone we don't trust is not classed as a friend and someone we class as a friend is usually trusted more than a non-friend because in part that's what we mean by friendship. It's how we use the words. In which case the division made by this piece of work becomes somewhat artificial.


Sam Vega said...

Yes, good point. They would have been on far safer ground if they had stuck to the idea expressed a little lower in the article: that chimps

"will extend favors preferentially toward selected individuals. The question was, are those interactions based on trust?"

These two behavioural variables (trust, and extending favours) are sufficiently distinct to avoid a tautology. If they had established that, they could have then anthropomorphised away as much as they liked. They would, however, still have the problem that the questions of feelings and perceptions are not addressed. I extend favours to lots of people that I trust, but actively dislike them. Maybe the chimps are the same; they have bought the compliance of others in the tribe by extending favours, but still can't stand the sight of the nasty hairy bastards...

James Higham said...

One can be generally distrustful and yet have close friends one trusts.

Roger said...

How do they know, were they sure the chimps trusted the researchers? Did the anthros trust the chimps to reveal the truth? I don't trust anthropologists and I don't trust chimps either - too much hand waving from both.

Derek said...

I sense that the Chimps would have had a preliminary meeting to discuss the outcome of displaying trust to the group of researchers in order to obtain and accomplish a fruitful (pun) and advantageous (to the Chimps) outcome.

Hand waving - an indication of a poor vocabulary. That's foreigners for you . . .

A K Haart said...

Sam - You are right, trust and extending favours are sufficiently distinct and the idea of friendship could have been avoided. To my mind there is often a touch of Disney when potentially cute animal behaviour is studied, almost an invitation for a profile-raising documentary.

James - probably a good strategy.

Roger - I wouldn't trust a chimp, at Twycross they throw dung at visitors. Maybe they think we're all anthropologists.

Derek - yes, those displays of "friendship" were probably strategy meetings to work out the best way to manipulate anthropologists into giving them lots of food while laying on entertainment.

Demetrius said...

He looks how I feel.

A K Haart said...

Demetrius - perhaps he's remembering those tea parties of long ago.