Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes

"If we look straight and deep into a chimpanzee's eyes, and intelligent, self-assured personality looks back at us."

The author, Frans de Waal, is a primatologist who for several years studied a colony of chimps in Arnhem zoo. Although studying them out of the wild like this is not an entirely natural setting, the zoo visitors are kept well back, and the chimps have been found to act very much like they do in the wild in most respects. In addition the setting allows them to be watched close up without danger.

We get introduced to the key players in the chimps community and feel like we are getting to know real individuals. Then the author covers their behaviour in detail. Factual but never boring or superficial.


Chimps behave with surprising intelligence. In the book they make several elaborate escape attempts, some successful, that require planning and co-operation.

In other chapter an ape demonstrates that lying does not require human language. Using body language alone a chimp is described acting like he does not know where some food is hidden when with the group, but later alone he runs straight for it.

Also discussed is the social intelligence hypothesis. That intelligence evolved in order to deal with increasingly complex group life of the apes. The technical inventiveness that chimps have in limited degree and humans have, is a secondary development to the need to outsmart others, detect deceptive tactics and so on. Is it therefore reasonable to suppose that humans had centralized social organization before they had material possessions with which to display their wealth and power?


Even in the zoo colony the chimps occupied themselves with leadership battles. Chimps want to lead their colonies as the leader gets his pick of females to mate with, and is able to keep his children safe. However in order to become the leader in the first place there is months of not just physical intimidation, but political gesturing and favour giving to win support of the females and other apes in the group.

The author mentions the French phrase "Noblesse Oblige", which means that with wealth power and prestige come responsibilities.  In order to keep their position at the top of the hierarchy, chimp leaders will need to help weaker chimps in disputes, keep the peace, act for justice and share the females in the group.

The way the chimps behave in the colony is really not very far removed from the way managers and executives behave in a large company in some respects!

Avoid the epilogue

Originally the book was published in 1982. I picked up a revised edition 1998 with an additional introduction and epilogue, and some edits to reflect updated theories. I recommend skipping the epilogue if you want a happy ending, because you grow attached to the individual apes and there is bad news for a couple of them that was only added in the 1998 printing once the author had time to come to terms with what happened.

In all I think it's a fascinating book, and anyone interested in where we came from should check it out. In addition it seems to be recommended reading for senators and business leaders. Hopefully my boss will not read this and groom me at work before attacking one of the other managers.

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