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At Mind Matters News: Does a chimp mom who carries a dead baby around understand death?


In a recent study of primate mothers, researchers imply that their behavior shows a growing awareness of the nature of death:

That is a trickier question than it first seems. Researchers looked into the habit some primate moms have of carrying a baby who has died, sometimes for months:

News, “Does a chimp mom who carries a dead baby around understand death?” at Mind Matters News

Published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the researchers compiled data from anecdotes reported in 126 publications on primate behaviour. In the largest study of its kind, researchers undertook the most extensive and rigorous quantitative analysis to date of a behaviour known as “infant corpse carrying” in primate mothers, looking at 409 cases across 50 species.

While there is debate among scientists around whether primates are aware of death, this new study suggests that primate mothers may possess an awareness — or be able to learn about death over time.

Study co-author Dr Alecia Carter (UCL Anthropology) said: “Our study indicates that primates may be able to learn about death in similar ways to humans: it might take experience to understand that death results in a long-lasting “cessation of function”, which is one of the concepts of death that humans have. What we don’t know, and maybe will never know, is whether primates can understand that death is universal, that all animals — including themselves — will die.

University College London, “Primate mothers may carry infants after death as a way of grieving, study finds” at ScienceDaily (September 14, 2021)

Whoa. Wait. Humans understand death as an abstraction that comprises a number of separate facts, including that it is not merely a “long-lasting ‘cessation of function.’” That would be coma or paralysis.

The point about death — as a human understands it — is that the deceased loved one is never coming back. That is why human mothers do not carry a dead baby around for months. The primates’ behavior definitely demonstrates grief in the sense of attachment but also makes clear that they don’t understand what death means.

An iconic example of this dilemma is the faithful Japanese dog Hachikō. For many years after his master had died, he went down to the train station every evening to await his return. The story is touching in part because Hachikō’s could not know that his human friend had actually died. Faithfulness is inspiriing but it is not evidence that the life form understands what death is. In these examples, it implies the opposite.


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Reality check: The primates’ behavior definitely demonstrates grief over their dead infants but also makes clear that they don’t understand what death means.

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The real reason why only human beings speak. Language is a tool for abstract thinking—a necessary tool for abstraction—and humans are the only animals who think abstractly. (Michael Egnor)

Researchers: Apes are just like us. And we’re not doing the right things to make them start behaving that way… In 2011, we were told in Smithsonian Magazine, “‘Talking’ apes are not just the stuff of science fiction; scientists have taught many apes to use some semblance of language.” Have they? If so, why has it all subsided? What happened? (Denyse O’Leary)


Do animals truly grieve when other animals die? Yes, but “death” is, in some ways, an abstraction so there are only some things they understand about it. For example, the dog Hachikō’s lifelong devoted vigil at the train station is touching in part because he could not know that his human friend had actually died. (Denyse O’Leary)

Have they distinguished this from the mother simply acting out an instinct, but without the further instinct or understanding to know that it is no longer alive? EDTA

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