A chimp on trial

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

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

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? This show brings together expert witnesses, bickering lawyers and public audiences to explore the issue together. 

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Dr Emma Tecwyn swears on ‘Primate Cognition’ to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth…

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.

Dr Emily Messer gives her opinion at the British Science Festival
Dr Emily Messer gives her opinion at the British Science Festival

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.

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The jury decides at the Edinburgh Fringe.

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?

(Please note: The chimp in the case is hypothetical and no real chimpanzees used in the show – if you want to know why I would never consider using a live chimp, see here).

 If you would like us to hold a chimp trial at your event, please find my contact details at the bottom of the page.

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