Chimp on trial

Should chimpanzees have human rights? Could a chimp do a human wrong?


We know that chimpanzees are our closest evolutionary relatives. We know that they are an incredibly intelligent species, but is it possible for a chimpanzee to commit a crime? Chimp on trial brings together expert witnesses, bickering lawyers and public audiences to explore the issue together.

Set in a court room, the show explores what we know about the intelligence and abilities of our closest evolutionary ancestors by asking whether a chimp could ever be guilty of a crime in the same way as a human. The prosecution and defence call expert witnesses – researchers in the field –  to explain how their research sheds light on the question. As the jury, the audience is able to quiz the witnesses and ultimately decide the verdict.

A chimp has killed another chimp. He is now on trial. You are the jury. Is he a murderer? It’s your decision.

The topics explored in whether a chimp could be guilty of murder are hot topics of research in modern psychology. And topics where not all researchers agree. Are chimps able to plan? Does a chimp possess any of the morals that govern human behaviour? Could chimps have any idea that their group-mates think like they do? Do chimps have cultural norms? How similar are chimps and humans?

Researchers are interested in these topics because they teach us about the evolution of intelligence and cognition. By comparing the skills of different species we can piece together how animals deal with their environments, how they think and the way that they perceive the world around them. It allows us to shed light on how skills might have evolved right across the animal kingdom, including in the species that is, arguably, most reliant on its own technology and culture – humans.

There remain huge debates in this area of psychology about what skills chimpanzees and other animals have and how these compare to the skills of humans. The experts that take part will not agree on everything. It is up to them to explain how their research has shed light on the topic and justify why their research supports their opinions. It is up to the audience to weigh up the evidence they hear, to ask the researchers the questions that they want answered and ultimately to decide – could a chimp ever be guilty of murder?

This show can be booked as a theatre production or as a stand-alone talk. Please contact me if you would like more information
You can hear me talk more about the show with Deutsche Welle and Edinburgh Skeptics. There are reviews of the show from the British Psychological Society and Broadway Baby.