Monday: Teenage Rebellion in Chimps?

Chimps are our closest living genetic relatives, but what does that really mean? This week, we give you the chance to ask two researchers about the similarities and differences between humans and chimps.

Monday’s Question:
“Do some apes display teenage rebellion, or is it limited to humans?”

Chris in Bethesda, MD. Chris heard about us on on the SciScoop science news forum. He says he's an “analyst, looking for biological bases for terrorism.”

William Fields

Yes. Some apes, and I would suspect most apes, in their teenage years struggle, rebelliously, with the cognitive and somatic transitions toward adulthood. Ape populations are different in degree depending upon the ape culture; however, negotiating adult sexuality and aggression (which is characteristic of all human and nonhuman primate societies) requires experimentation—or rebellion—to perfect. Rebellion, like play, is an essential tool of social learning.

Social approval is as strong in non-human primate societies as it is in human ones. High levels of social cooperation are essential for primate groups to survive. Approval, disapproval, and aggression all have their place, but in most ape cultures, seeking approval is a more efficient option. Stimulating aggression tends to be an expensive strategy. One might think of rebellion as a teenage experiment with cost/benefit ratios of cooperation and aggression.

In many respects, rebellion serves the same purposes in the adolescent organism that play serves in the young. There is a fine line between play and aggression. Learning the dynamics of the play/aggression boundary is an essential accomplishment of a socially competent adult. Rebellion is a good teacher.

Rebellion seems to be a psychological element throughout both ape and human ontogeny. The “terrible two’s” are an example. A case in point is baby bonobo Nyota. Usually, he was a very happy and cooperative baby. The day he turned 22 months old, I had a new experience. It was also a day I was hearing from other researchers who worked with primates that apes in language research could not answer the polar interrogative nor were apes able to use the word “NO.” My report from that day:

Nyota was awake and he did not seem to be his happy playful self. I asked him if he was ready to eat his breakfast. He did not respond with his traditional affirmative peep, so I picked up the lexigram keyboard and asked him:


Do you want to eat your cereal and milk?




Can we go see Panbanisha now?



The discussion lasted through nearly twenty questions. No matter what I asked Nyota that day, his answer was “no” and his behavior matched his utterance. Fortunately, this baby “rebellion” lasted only three days. Perhaps, the difference between ape and human teenage rebellion is the duration. Because humans are more neotenous than apes, the phase endures longer. It is a shorter-lived experience in non-humans.

Daniel Povinelli

When I agreed to participate in this webchat, I could never have imagined that the first question would be about “teenage rebellion,” terrorism, and chimpanzee behavior. What possible connection could there be between the fact that in some human cultures (given their particular socio-demographic patterns) some teenagers exhibit behaviors that some people label “teenage rebellion” on the one hand, and terrorism on the other? The only possible connection I can imagine is that human minds that are in a state of rebellion against authority and/or the established status quo may be more susceptible to being recruited as terrorists, and that somehow studying chimpanzee behavior might shed light on this issue.

As I reflected on this question, however, it became clear that this is a great example of why we need to understand the differences between humans and chimpanzees (and other primates) more fully. Consider the important dis-analogies between terrorism in humans and any behaviors in chimpanzees. Indoctrination of the type that is so effective in controlling human behavior requires instilling ideas (read: belief systems) from one mind into another. This type of informational transmission is not only beyond the scope of anything of which animals (including chimpanzees) are capable, but far beyond it. There is absolutely nothing in the accumulated knowledge of animal communication—from the waggle dances of honeybees to the signing of apes that have been exposed to ASL—that would remotely suggest that the transmission of any kind of belief system is possible.

On a related note, in a stirring passage in The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky wrote that torture is something uniquely human; to claim that animals could engage in torture would be a great insult to them.

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