Fair play to you, Mr Chimp


Pic c/o Bitter Waller

BBC have gone ape with an interesting primatology study today: when chimps and infant humans play the Ultimatum game (widely used by economists to determine real world notions of fairness and equity), both species seem to exhibit similar patterns of behaviour and thus – it is suggested – similar notions of fairness. 

While the study does point to similarities, it's worth bearing in mind that what seems to be "normal" human responses often conceals wide cultural variation. Canadian anthropologist Joseph Henrich has repeatedly shown this is so, in bothering to play this kind of game with folk other than Western

Lamalera Whale hunters for example, who depend on each other much more than, say, Kalahari bushmen, tend to make much bigger offers than the norm.

Not that games are wrong – far from it, they're often really useful mode to explore behaviour and embedded attitudes and dispositions– it's just that if we're not careful, we can mistake local variation for generalised truth and – as in this case – genetically-hard wired truths for culturally-shaped ones (and yes, other primates have culture, too)