The team from the universities of Manchester, Birmingham, and St Andrews, and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, say humans were unlikely to have inherited the trait of kindness from their primate cousins.
The animals, they find, are unlikely to take an interest in each other unless there is an anticipated benefit.
Previous research implying helpful behaviour in chimps was likely to be a by-product of the way experiments were designed, they argue in Nature Communications.
The team worked with a group of 16 Chimpanzees at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary, in Uganda.
Using two ingenious experiments, the team discovered the chimpanzees were no more likely to help feed each other as they were to block access to a box of peanuts.
One of the principle investigators, Dr Keith Jensen at The University of Manchester, said, “The evolution of social behaviour, and what drives individuals to act altruistically, is an important and active area of debate.
“There has been an appealing suggestion that the roots of human altruism extend down at least as far as our common ancestor with chimpanzees.
“However, the results of this study challenges that view. ‘Helping’ might have formerly arisen in previous studies as a by-product of interesting tasks.”
Dr Claudio Tennie, from the University of Birmingham, said: “The results of these experiments combined demonstrate that the chimpanzees did not act in a manner that would produce benefits for others in a task where there was no perceived benefit to themselves.
“Indeed, given that the participants were just as likely to prevent access to food as they were to permit access, chimpanzees are no more altruistic than they are spiteful.
“Even after they demonstrated a clear understanding of the consequences of their actions, they remained indifferent to any effects these actions may have on others. If true, this would mean that prosocial behaviour has developed late in evolution, after our split with the other apes.”