Chimps don't care if someone else gets robbed

Is justice a uniquely human concept? However you want to define it, the fact is we mete out punishment based on what one individual has done to another, even if we don't know either of those people. Yet this sort of group enforcement of laws seems pretty fundamental to our society — and it looks like it might be something that only we humans have.

Top image: Nils Rinaldi/Flickr.

In a recent study involving a cartload of chimpanzees, the animals seemed disinclined to punish thieves, unless they were personally affected.

In chimpanzee troupes, dominant chimps will intervene in fights and keep the peace — and when their own food was stolen, they'll punish the thief. But when it happens between two other chimps, even when the victim was a close relation? Then the dominant chimp doesn't intervene.

Outside punishment of the thief would be what's known as third-party punishment, and it makes up a rather substantial part of our own social code, notably allowing recourse for those who wouldn't be able to enact any sort of punishment on their own. This research seems to indicate that third party punishment developed since the human ancestral split from chimpanzees, as the animals have no interest in directly policing actions that break social norms unless it directly involves them. It seems that ideas like "fairness" and "justice" don't exist in other creatures, no matter how closely related to us those creatures are.