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3 Times a Wild Chimpanzee Helped Me

… but didn’t actually mean to.

Key points

  • Chimps are far more knowledgeable about the forest than we are.
  • We learn a lot of helpful things by watching them.
  • What would it take to convince us that they mean to help us?

When I first worried about snakes in the forest, everyone told me that the best way to avoid them was to stay near chimpanzees. Chimps are always on the lookout, have a very sharp eye, and give good advance warning. And sure enough, following close behind Morton one rainy day, he suddenly veered off the trail into the dense brush, picked his way laboriously through, and reentered the trail 40 feet further on. I did the same, and as we paralleled the trail I saw, at close range, an enormous black snake, coiled and watching.

I asked myself what kind of thing Morton could do, what kind of behavior or expression, would convince me he meant to help. A kind of beckoning hand, maybe, which I’ve never seen a chimp do under any conditions. Or a kind of slow and exaggerated way of doing something, like you do with a child who is trying to learn.

Some researchers describe that kind of behavior from chimp mothers, when their little ones are learning how to crack nuts with a stone, but even then it is much more subtle than what humans do. Clear and obvious things without self-interest, like handing a stick to someone trying to reach a high fruit, or carrying someone else’s food when they’re injured, I’ve not witnessed.

When I was lost, and the chimps were not

One day early in my time in the forest, I lost focus, and the experienced researcher I was following disappeared without a trace. I didn’t know where I was, and quickly got disoriented and panicky. I was stumbling around trying to find a clearing to get my bearings when a very old chimp named Garbo suddenly appeared. She glanced at me as she moved past, and I was able to follow her arthritic ramble for a long stretch as she made her way to the larger group.

One particular valley bottom was the most difficult traveling I had to do—there were places where I couldn’t touch the ground the vines were so thick, strung horizontally at waist height. Everything in those sweltering gullies has thorns and burrs and stinging nettles and ants, and in the intense heat, my sweat was so thick on my skin that everything stuck and slicked down under my clothes. There was a kind of claustrophobia I’d not felt before, with no sight-line, breathing only through my nose, standing desperately motionless, gripping the compass.

I almost cried from relief when Rahsaan suddenly parted the chin-high ginger 10 feet away; he kept one dark eye on me over his shoulder as he loped silently through a magically-appearing tunnel in the thornage. I followed on all fours, he immediately vanished, and I was on my way to higher ground.

What is helping?

I was so grateful to Garbo and Rahsaan, and I do not think for a moment they meant to help. Of course chimps do a lot of high-quality grooming of each other, which is a great help with wound care and controlling parasites, and they seem to enjoy this very much (both the giver and the receiver). And mother chimps keep a very close eye on their babies for a long time, rarely beyond arm's-reach for the first three years. Many animals do this—is it helping?

One (human) definition of helping is not just doing something that benefits another, but knowing it and intending it to do that. If you happen to have an easier time walking because the gravel I spread on my own walkway trickled over to yours, that doesn’t count. If I weed your garden because I don’t like looking at a mess from my own porch, it doesn’t count. Do chimps help? And does it matter if it’s really helping by our narrow definition?

It matters to researchers concerned with animals’ understanding of the mind. Many animals live in complex social groups: monkeys, wolves, elephants, bees, and on. The behaviors they’ve evolved to do this are rich and fascinating. When a chimp shows their upper teeth, for example, they are likely to be what we’d call afraid. Does an observing chimp interpret it this way, as a feeling? Or rather as a direct predictor of behavior—as in “now is a good time to grab that fig, because she’s likely to back down.” No internal states there, no thinking about the mind.

Helping as thinking about the mind

So too with helping. To help in the way humans usually mean it, I have to understand that you are experiencing some internal state that I’m not. Ignorance, for example. You don’t know how to clean potatoes, so I’ll show you. You don’t know where the group is, and I do, so follow me. Or pain: You’re suffering as you carry that load, so I’ll reduce your burden.

It is certainly possible for animals, including humans, to show highly sophisticated behavior without reasoning about others’ minds—only about their actions. But humans do reason about other minds, all the time, and it would be very interesting if we were the only ones doing it. Humans are excellent at seeing human traits, mind traits, in other animals. Rahsaan saw I was lost, that I didn’t know the way, that I wanted help. Did he? For thinkers who like to think about thinking, the thought experiment is a captivating one.


Boesch, C., Bombjaková, D., Meier, A. & Mundry, R. (2019). Learning curves and teaching when acquiring nut-cracking in humans and chimpanzees, Scientific Reports, 9, num. 1515.

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