Ape Pieta -- Sightings

You may have heard the recent reports of evidence that chimpanzees show signs of mourning -- in many of the same ways that humans do.  The question is, what does this mean?  Could it be that grieving isn't a uniquely human experience, but a sign that we are apes?  The evolutionary debate continually raises the question of what separates humans from our more distant relatives.  Recent observations of both captive chimps and ones in the wild bring these questions to the fore.  Christian Sheppard, writing today for Sightings, raises some difficult questions for us to ponder, including the very existence of God.  We may not have good answers to why other apes show the same signs of grief as do we, but the questions are there.   We wrestle with them, even as we share in own rituals of mourning, and at least for me, doing so in the hope of the resurrection. 


Sightings 5/13/10

Ape Pietà
-- Christian Sheppard

Two new ethological studies tell us how chimpanzees grieve, raising doubts about the uniqueness of human mourning as well as, perhaps, the superfluity of religious practice. Laboratory scientists in Scotland have made unprecedented close observations of captive chimpanzees reacting to a long-time group member’s death and conclude that “without death-related symbols or rituals, chimpanzees show several behaviors that recall human responses to the death of a close relative.” Behaviors displayed by these chimps before, during, and after the death of one elderly female include “respect, care, anticipatory grief,” “test for pulse or breath,” “attempted resuscitation,” “denial, feelings of anger toward the deceased,” “night-time vigil,” “consolation, social support,” “disturbed sleep,” “cleaning the body,” “grief, mourning,” and, finally, “leaving objects or places associated with the deceased untouched.” After meticulously detailing the deathbed scene of this beloved chimp grandmother, these scientists are provoked to ask, “Are humans uniquely aware of mortality?” It has long been known that chimpanzees, like humans, possess self-awareness, but that chimpanzees are also aware of their mortality is news that profoundly alters our own self-awareness. Our grief could be a sign, not of our humanity, but that we are apes.

Meanwhile, out of Africa comes other news to further refine awareness of our essential ape-ness. Field ethologists in Bossou, Guinea have studied one wild chimpanzee group’s macabre cultural tradition of “corpse-carrying”: “The carrying of infants' corpses has been reported from a number of primate species, both in captivity and the wild — albeit usually lasting a few days only — suggesting a phylogenetic continuity for a behavior that is poignant testament to the close mother-infant bond which extends across different primate taxa.” Corpse-carrying, like other signs of grief, may point to an awareness of mortality, but in Bossou grieving mothers have been observed carrying and caring for their children’s bodies over two months after death. “Corpse-carrying may have become something of a Bossou "tradition", admits Bossou’s lead-scientist Dora Biro, suggesting that one chimp mother may have learned to carry her dead infant from another mother, who had been observed performing the behavior twice before. It seems that chimpanzees not only grieve like us, but like us, they also invent traditions to deal with their grief. Further ethological work in the lab and field may someday reveal what such culturally transmitted traditions mean for chimpanzees, but for humans, it is apparent that we are not the only beings who mourn.

Moreover, we ought to ponder the significance of the fact that chimpanzees, aware of their mortality, grieve and mourn without religious symbol or ritual. While some might be tempted to interpret our fellow apes' mourning behaviors as a sign of some kind of nascent religiosity (although thereby complicating the claim that religion is uniquely human), these studies can be understood as undermining altogether the role of religion in our response to death. Perhaps now better aware of our essential ape-ness in regards to death, grief, and mourning, traditional religious responses can be discarded as inessential. Let the uncanny image of a chimpanzee mother tenderly toting her weather-mummified infant through primordial jungle (http://divinity.uchicago.edu/martycenter/publications/sightings/images/chimpanzee.jpg) be our post-Darwinian pietà, a post-religious icon to unfix our gaze from such traditional religious images as Mary mourning over her crucified son. Where, for example, Michelangelo’s famous statue in Rome emphasizes the pitiful death of Jesus all the more to anticipate His resurrection and to promise believers their own eventual eternal triumph over death, our ape pietà offers no transcendental context, no after-life, no resurrection, no “good news” (for that matter, no reincarnation and no nirvana), no means of escape from our primal tearful awareness of our mortality. So observing our chimpanzee kin raises our awareness of life’s amazing, wonderful variety, as well as life’s fearful finitude.


For access to videos of chimpanzee mourning behavior see the BBC (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8645283.stm as well as New Scientist (http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn18818-how-chimps-mourn-their-dead.html).

The Scottish study: James R. Anderson, Alasdair Gillies and Louise C. Lock, “Pan Thanatology,” Current Biology Vol 20 No 8 (http://download.cell.com/current-biology/pdf/PIIS0960982210001454.pdf?intermediate=true).

The African study: Dora Biro, Tatyana Humle, Kathelijne Koops, Claudia Sousa, Misato Hayashi and Tetsuro Matsuzawa,”Chimpanzee mothers at Bossou, Guinea carry the mummified remains of their dead infants,” Current Biology, Vol 20 No 8 (http://download.cell.com/current-biology/pdf/PIIS0960982210002186.pdf?intermediate=true ).

Christian Sheppard is co-editor of Mystics: Presence and Aporia (University of Chicago Press, 2003) and is currently completing a memoir on mourning the death of his father after the death of God.


On April 6, 2010 Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, spoke at the University of Chicago Divinity School in an event sponsored by the university’s Theology Workshop. This month’s Religion and Culture Web Forum brings audio from Land’s discussion, titled “Christians, Public Policy, and Church and State Separation,” and offers reflections on the event in an introduction by David Newheiser, Ph.D. student and coordinator of the Theology Workshop at the University of Chicago. http://divinity.uchicago.edu/martycenter/publications/webforum/index.shtml


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


Anonymous said…
I've seen geese mourn...and dogs. I don't think this is just a human trait. Some animals, like geese, mate for life with the same partner, they form families. Outside of where I used to work someone hit and killed a goose, it's mate came to that same spot for over a week and just cried. It was a very sad yet amazing thing to watch.
John said…
I was never aware there was any doubt that pets grieve, and they have separation anxieties.

Rebecca Littlejohn said…
I do not see how other species grieving in any way diminishes the human practices of grieving. The logic in this response to these studies is really weak. How does the way a chimp grieves set the standards for human grieving? How does it have any relation to whether religious traditions are "necessary" for human grieving or not? I should think knowing that grieving is not an exclusively human experience would bring comfort, not concern about whether we're still special enough. I find this writer's response really odd.
John said…
I find it fascinating that Mr. Sheppard would draw such conclusions from the research.

The fact that other animals feel loss, abandonment and separation and even grief, or that some higher primates even develop grieving rituals, does not suggest to me that there is no God. Grief is a component of love and God is all about love. If we do not love, we will not grieve. If we cannot grieve we likely cannot love.

Speaking from an evolutionary perspective this disclosure suggests to me that the capacity to feel grief over the death of a loved one is also genetically imprinted into many other social animals and that such emotional capacity fosters the success of the species. The experience of grief is healthy for the person and for the community.

As a believer I am not surprised that God cares so deeply about all of God's creation that grief and love were gifts given to a number of creatures.

Glenn said…
Having a degree in evolutionary biology, I think that the studies are valid, but that the writer is asking the wrong questions with regards to the available evidence. Grieving results from a sense of loss. Social species all form attachments to some degree which is what makes them social animals and the breaking of that attachment through death is likely to manifest itself in some expression of grief. However, this does not translate into the chimpanzees being aware of their own mortality. These studies show that other species are aware of the loss of attachment, but it does not show an awareness of their own, inevitable death. It is not impossible that another species, such as dolphins, elephants, great apes or even octopi could eventually be shown to have an awareness of their mortality, but unless I am mistaken, humans are currently the only species that is known to be acutely aware of their own mortality.
Thanks for the comments, let's keep the conversation going. Perhaps we could ask the question, in what way does human forms of grieving differ. Sheppard suggests that there is no real difference in purpose, even if in kind. But, Like Rebecca I'm not sure that this diminishes from our need to speak in theological terms.
Glenn said…
If the grief is a biochemical/psychological reaction brought on by the sense of loss then the grief ritual is less complex than when that sense of loss is accompanied by a true awareness of one's own mortality. That awareness of one's own mortality inevitably brings on a search for meaning. A goose that loses it's lifelong mate may grieve as a consequence of no longer having what it has always known. A human who knows that he/she will also die has to not only recover from the initial loss but come to terms with the impending loss of his own life. I think that human grief rituals like funerals and religious ceremonies serve that purpose. Our grief rituals are more complicated because they have to do more than help us recover from the loss of an external attachment. They have to help us come to terms with what we all know is coming, the loss of our own being. A chimp grieves because it knows that a companion has died, but it does not necessarily know death is in its future as well. In my opinion, human grief rituals differ from those of other species because humans need to find meaning in a life that they are keenly aware will eventually end in death.
David Mc said…
"primal tearful awareness of our mortality." How many of us would confess to these awesome fears? Geeze, we live much longer than these monkeys. what a baby.
John said…
I think that in many cases, grief is as much or more about pure loss than confrontation with our own mortality. Grief can occur at the termination of relationships as well as the death of pets, divorce, children moving away, leaving behind a beloved home, etc. All these typically trigger feelings of grief and in a setting where the mourner has n particular reason to confront their own mortality.

But I will agree, that humans do confront their own mortality and this does in one way very likely distinguish us from our primate relatives. But this says nothing one way or the other about the reality of God.


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