Precis: Chimpanzee Politics

Chimpanzee Politics
Frans de Waal. 1982/1998

A fascinating and perfect work of nonfiction for the casual reader. A surrealist exploration of political psychology in another species. The book has wide appeal for anyone interested in human status, dominance, and privilege. However, remain disciplined: the behaviors you are reading about here are chimpanzee. You cannot simply conclude that they therefore do exist in humans. Instead, this book can give us hypotheses that remain to be tested.

Why is this book interesting? Chimpanzees are crafty as hell. De Waal tells of a chimp who feigned injury after a fight in order to convince the victor that his victory was more total than it was. A chimp who ignores the grapefruits buried in the sand, when searching with the group, then returns to the spot hours later to eat them all himself. We read of chimps resolving conflict, calling for intermediaries, cooperating to escape their enclosure or climb forbidden trees.

The dominant male makes his hair stand on end (left), thus appearing larger to the others.

The book’s thesis, which may not seem controversial to those of us unfamiliar with primatology, is that chimpanzees do have thoughts, feelings, and political life. This challenges the behaviorist thesis that animals are machines made of meat. It also challenges the primacy of various concepts, such as sentience or language, that have been used to draw a line between humans and apes. For de Waal, the proof is in the behavior, and the apes are thinking strategically about power plays. If you read this book, you will likely agree.

De Waal’s method is mostly journalistic: relating the best account of events that can be assembled from several witnesses. But his work at the Arnhem zoo (where this colony lived on a large island, all visible from at least one observation point) involved many students and colleagues who conducted more specific projects. This is a boon! De Waal writes about alliances and then shows a diagram of which ape bowed to greet which other ape how often during what period! When he claims an alliance has shifted, he can point to a running tally, made every five minutes, of which ape is grooming which other or who they are spotted near!

With these tools, de Waal argues persuasively that dominance in ape society is not primarily about the top ape, but instead Machiavellian through and through. Males work out dominance relations by diplomacy, policy, favors, bluffing and occasional conflicts — where physical strength is more important than intelligence. (Strangely, the smartest male was subordinate throughout this book, but strength usually broke the tie between rivals.) Females tend to determine dominance very quickly without conflict, most based on personality. Males striving for greater dominance may try to disrupt dominant coalitions, getting close to one or mocking another. In anticipation of this behavior, some males will even prevent one ape from spending too much time with another, for fear that they will ally and become a threat. Apes will join a fight to defend whoever they know best, if they do not understand who is in the right. But, they will also take sides against their ally if they don’t agree with what they are doing.

Sexuality with apes is rather free-form, with no monogamous relationships but definite preferences and tendencies. Dominant males do restrict sex for other males, but only with limited success. Chimpanzee sex normally lasts less than a minute. (Though females in estrus may partake several times a day with different partners.) In a moment of evolutionary psychology, de Waal interprets male dominance behaviors, such as restricting sex for other males or defending all children, as an evolutionarily “successful” pattern in a society where no one is sure who is the father of a child.

The chimp political world is shockingly familiar. And if it does not describe our world today, it certainly seems to describe its historical roots, or, should we say fundaments.

Chimps spend a lot of time grooming each other. Especially after they fight!

Top apes practice noblesse oblige, defending the weak to solidify the social order in which they are dominant. A male that rises to power through collusion with other powerful males will always be limited by them as well, whereas an ape that rises on his own will not. Most ape activity has nothing to do with dominance, and most apes in a colony are females with little stake in power struggles. Ape societies typically disperse to forage independently for most of the day; if they are fed together all at once, they will tend to fight and some may starve. Dominant males threaten and bluff each other so often that they are ultimately less violent than female apes in a position of dominance, who will actually hurt someone every week. (Frequent threats are, in a way, preferable.) Some apes, when in a position of dominance, establish a policy of supporting the expected loser of any conflict, with the simple effect of reducing conflicts. After fights and threats, apes reconcile, making specific gestures until the other accepts them, then grooming each other for quite a while. One ape in the study took it upon herself to control sex with the other females, breaking up these encounters if she did not approve. (This gave her a special power and made it necessary for the dominant males to either ally with her or fight her off constantly.)

The book makes a good case that animals are inherently political. They think, or behave as if they do. They endeavor to improve their circumstances, though they often fail. They play the political game, not out of ill-will, but because it draws them in. Those who try to avoid it, still play their part in it.

Arguably, de Waal is imposing a Machiavellian interpretation on the apes, and he points out many times that the majority of their life is spent in rather comfortable harmony. The moments that establish the system of status and power in focus in this book are rare. Perhaps, the games of manipulation and power are relatively unimportant for chimps themselves. In a sense, de Waal only tells us this story to convince us of his larger claim, that chimps are thinking animals. Perhaps it is only we human readers who find this minor aspect of their life, rather than the laying about or sex or grapefruit, so fascinating.

But there is violence in chimp life, and definite rules about what shall not be permitted. Chimps that break the rules soon learn to respect them. De Waal relates a dream he had during the research for this book, where the chimps could speak. In the dream, Frans approached the ape’s enclosure. The dominant male stepped forward from the others and shook his hand. “Rather impatiently he listened to my request to come in,” Frans writes. “He refused point blank. That was out of the question, he said, and besides, their society would not suit me: it was much too harsh for a human being.” Perhaps it is in caricature that we find the subtle proclivities of human interaction most relatable and essentially true.