Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes by Frans de Waal

  1. An incredible insight into the takeovers and social organization of a chimp colony in the Netherlands. “The behavior of our closest relatives provides clues about human nature. Apart from political maneuvering, chimpanzees show many behaviors that parallel those of humans, from tool technology to intercommunity warfare. In fact, our place among the primates is increasingly a backdrop of substantial similarity. Our uniqueness breaks down as we study our relatives.”
Key Takeaways
  1. Simplified conditions, like the one found at Arnhem Zoo with this chimp colony, allow researchers to see more because there is less. A totally wild environment is too dynamic, too chaotic to be able to closely observe some of the interactions which are dissected in this book
  2. “Every country has its Dick Cheneys and Ted Kennedys operating behind the scenes. Being over the hill themselves, these experienced men often exploit the intense rivalries among younger politicians, gaining tremendous power as a result. I also did not draw explicit parallels between how rival chimpanzees curry favor with females by grooming and tickling their young and the way human politicians hold up and kiss babies, something they rarely do outside the election season. There are tons of such parallels, also in nonverbal communication (the swaggering, the lowering of voices), but I stayed away from all these. To me, they were so obvious I am happy to leave them to my readers…The social dynamics are essentially the same. The game of probing and challenging, of forming coalitions, of undermining others’ coalitions, and of slapping the table to reinforce a point is right there for any observer to see. The will to power is a human universal. Our species has been engaged in Machiavellian tactics since the dawn of time, which is why no one should be surprised about the evolutionary connection pointed out in the present book.”
  3. Only in harmonious groups are adult males solicitous and tolerant of kid’s behavior
  4. When excited or aggressive, their hair stands on end so they appear larger than life and often this behavior can be seen as much as 10 minutes before by inconspicuous body movements and changes in posture
  5. The group dynamic is one large web and the alpha male is just as, if not more, ensnared in the web as the rest
  6. Since they don’t need to forage for food as they do in the wild, there is considerably more time to socialize and the close quarters, especially in the winter months, which leads to nearly twice as many aggressive incidents as in the summer months
  7. “Experts sometimes choose to create the impression of knowing nothing. They act in exactly the opposite way from the young teacher, who held forth with such conviction. Both attitudes lead nowhere, but unfortunately I will not be able to avoid them completely.”
  8. “Everyone can look, but actually perceiving is something that has to be learned. This is a constantly recurring problem when new students arrive. For the first few weeks they “see” nothing at all…Initially we only see what we recognize. Someone who knows nothing about chess and who watches a game between two players will not be aware of the tension on the board. Even if the watcher stays for an hour, he or she will still have great difficult in accurately reproducing the state of play on another board. A grand master, on the other hand, would grasp and memorize the position of every piece in one concentrated glance of a few seconds. This is not a difference of memory, but of perception. Whereas to the uninitiated the positions of the chess pieces are unrelated, the initiated attach great significance to them and see how they threaten and cover each other. It is easier to remember something with a structure than a chaotic jumble. This is the synthesizing principle of the so-called Gestalt perception: the whole, or Gestalt, is more than the sum of its parts. Learning to perceive is learning to recognize the patterns in which the components regularly occur. Once we are familiar with the patterns of interactions between chess pieces or chimpanzees, they seem so striking and obvious that it is difficult to imagine how other people can get bogged down in all kinds of detail and miss the essential logic of the maneuvers.”
  9. When chimpanzees are frightened or distressed, they bare their teeth much further than when they put on the so-called play-face
  10. When males are displaying and trying to intimidate, it is not uncommon to see females take away their weapons
  11. Side-Directed Behavior: behavior toward opponents and behavior toward companions or outsiders
    1. Seeking refuge and reassurance – the most common form and an excited or frightened chimpanzee clearly has a need for physical contact
    2. Recruitment of support
    3. Instigation
    4. Reconciliations – after conflict, the opponents are attracted to each other like magnets! They had to physically connect to make up and tension and hesitancy remains as long as the opponents had not reconciled their differences. This action serves to repair valuable relationships
    5. Coalitions – when two apes fight or threaten each other, a third ape may enter the fray and side with one of them. Sometimes this escalates and larger coalitions are formed. However, this does not cascade – chimpanzees never make an uncalculated move and the top position in a group may depend on aggressive cooperation (highest form of strategy, dominance) and, often, it was the females who were the most important part of helping their chosen male get into the position of alpha
  12. Social Intelligence Hypothesis
    1. Chimps developed such high intelligence in order to deal with an increasingly complex group life. The evolution of primate intelligence started with the need to outsmart others, to detect deceptive tactics, to reach mutually advantageous compromises, and to foster social ties that advance once’s career
  13. Alpha males
    1. Hair is constantly slightly on end, even when not actively displaying and walk in an exaggeratedly slow and heavy manner – all meant to make one look larger and heavier
    2. The submissive greeting is the most special form of behavior indicative of social order – deep bows, grunting, looking up at the alpha, kiss his feet/neck/chest. Alpha reacts to this by standing taller and making his hair stand on end which makes the contrast even greater
    3. Dominance manifests in two different ways – social influence (power, who can defeat whom and who weighs in most heavily when a conflict in the group occurs) and formal dominance (ones actual rank within the colony)
    4. Physical strength is only one factor and almost certainly not the critical one in determining dominance relationships
    5. A leader who hesitates in defending his proteges might very well have problems defending himself
    6. Tantrums are indicative of the beginning of the end but familiarity breeds contempt. Tantrums which are thrown too often are ignored
    7. Tend to think that the outcome of a fight determines the social relationship, whereas here the outcome was determined by the social relationship. The same was seen in later dominance processes. The prevailing social climate affected the self-confidence of the rivals. It was as if their effectiveness depended on the attitude of the group (rather like a soccer team playing better at home than away).
    8. Speed and agility are just as important as strength
    9. Alpha males experience a physical and emotional change when they become the alpha – hair on end, a “policy” of trying to stabilize the group after the shake up in hierarchy
    10. Pattern Recognition – an older alpha had a better eye for potentially dangerous social developments and realized better than his partner that such developments must be nipped in the bud
    11. One of the new alphas, Nikkie, received great resistance from the females and never had secure rule. He was “greeted” and groomed and obeyed but he lead from a position of fear rather than respect. Must have the backing and support of the females or else your power is fragile
  14. Chimps overcome basic competitive tendencies more than other animals and achieve a high degree of cooperation. They cooperate in order to create a common front against the neighbors – the psyche is one of both competition and compromise and this is what makes chimp society so much more recognizable to us than the social structure of the other great apes
  15. Chimpanzee males avoid looking at each other in moments of tension, challenge, and intimidation. In moments of reconciliation, on the other hand, they look each other straight and deep in the eyes. After a conflict the former opponents may sometimes sit opposite each other for a quarter of an hour or more, trying to catch each other’s eye. Once the opponents are finally looking at each other, first hesitantly but then more steadily, the reconciliation will not be far away. Often, a “sense of honor” would need to be overcome before the reconciliation begins and often it was a third party who would help them out of the impasse. This third party was always one of the adult females
  16. After a fight, contact and conciliation is so important than the winner can blackmail the loser. The winner refuses to have anything to do with the loser until he has received some respectful grunts
  17. A stable hierarchy is a great sign of peace and harmony in the group but only partially ensure peace in the social system. Horizontal developments – in which children grow up and social ties are established, neglected, or broken – inevitably affect the temporarily fixed “vertical” component, the hierarchy. Western “ladder” view of social ties compared to Japanese “network” view. Hierarchical stability cannot be equated with stagnation and monotony, dominance must constantly be proven (Red Queen Effect)
  18. Loser-supporters: a third individual who intervenes in a conflict on the side of the party who would otherwise have lost
  19. Young males of superior fighting ability cannot usurp power without the support of a sizable portion of a group. You have to have the group buy-in and back you – can never do it alone
  20. The chimps have incredible awareness of their social cues. During one of the fights, both sides were bluffing about how brave they were and could be seen holding their hands in front of their mouths so that nobody could see them bearing their teeth (a sign of fear, excitement, nervousness
  21. In all the time studying the apes, the researchers never once witnessed a conflict between the two highest ranking females
    1. Key for stability within a hierarchy to have the top women on the same page?
  22. There are often issues when there is ‘dual leadership’ or a second person who feels they are entitled to respect and power just as much as the true leader. As Machiavelli reasoned, “He who attains the principality with the aid of the nobility maintains it with more difficulty than he who becomes the prince with the assistance of the common people, for he finds himself a prince amidst many who feel themselves to be his equals, and because of this he can neither govern nor manage them as he might wish.”
  23. The males are incredibly tolerant of children. They cannot risk getting upset and losing the support of the females
  24. Sex
    1. The formation of territories is one way of demarcating procreational rights; the formation of a hierarchy is another. There is a definite link between power and sex; no social organization can be properly understood without knowledge of the sexual rules and the way the progeny are cared for. Even the proverbial cornerstone of our society, the family, is essentially a sexual and reproductive unit. Sigmund Freud, speculating about the history of the unit, imagined a “primal horde,” in which our forefathers obeyed one great chief, who jealously guarded all sexual rights and privileges for himself
    2. A female can only be fertilized by one male. By keeping other males away from her, a male increases the certainty that he will be the father of the child. Consequently, children will more often be sired by jealous than by tolerant males. If jealousy is hereditary, and that is what the theory assumes, more and more children will be born with this characteristic, and later they in turn will attempt to exclude other members of the same sex from the reproductive act.
    3. Whereas the males fight for the right to fertilize as many females as possible, the situation for the females is totally different. Whether she copulates with one or one hundred males, it will not alter the number of children she will give birth to. Jealousy among females is therefore less marked. Female competition occurs almost exclusively in pair-bonded species, such as many birds and a few mammals, such as humans. Men get most upset at the thought of their wife or girlfriend having sex with another man, women dislike most the thought that their husband or boyfriend actually loves another woman, regardless of whether or not sex has occurred. Because women look at these things from the perspective of relationships, they are more concerned about a possible emotional tie between their mate and another woman
    4. If a female does not want to mate, it is usually over. Persistent males run the risk of being chased by the female they approached and some of the other females too. Consequently, it is the females who largely engineer the evasion of the rules that exist among males
  25. If the number of individuals in any colony becomes unnaturally alrge, the system collapses (Dunbar’s Number)
  26. Triadic Awareness (Lateral Networks)
    1. Just as individual recognition is a prerequisite of a stable hierarchy, so triadic awareness is a prerequisite of a hierarchy based on coalitions. The term triadic awareness refers to the capacity to perceive social relationships between others so as to form varied triangular relationships. For example, Luit knows that Yeroen and Nikkie are allies, so he will not provoke conflicts with Yeroen when Nikkie is nearby, but he is much less reluctant to do so when he meets Yeroen alone. What is special about this kind of knowledge is that an individual is not only aware of his or her relationships with everyone in the group, but also monitors and evaluates relationships that exist in the social environment so as to gain an understanding of how the self relates to combinations of other individuals. Elementary forms of three-dimensional group life are found in many birds and mammals, but primates are undoubtedly supreme in this respect. Mediation with a view to reconciliation, separating interventions, telling tales, and coalitions would all be inconceivable without triadic awareness
    2. If any of this sounds simple, it is because triadic awareness is second nature to human beings, and we find it hard to imagine a society without it
    3. Dependence on third parties plays such a prominent role in the chimpanzee hierarchy that the basic relationships are completely overshadowed. This is not only true for the complex balance of power in the male triangle. A small child, for example, may chase away a full-grown male. He is able to do so under the protection of his mother or “aunt.” Like the children, these females are basically inferior to the males, but they, in turn, can rely on the support of other females and sometimes can appeal to dominant males for help
  27. The Female Hierarchy
    1. The basis of hierarchical positions is sex-related. Among males coalitions determine dominance. The male dominance over the females is largely determined by their physical superiority. Among females it is above all personality and age that seem to be the determining factors.
    2. Conflicts between females are so rare and the outcome is so unpredictable that they cannot be used as a criterion for determining rank.
    3. The female hierarchy in our chimpanzee group seems to be based on respect from below rather than intimidation and a show of strength from above
      1. Perhaps why it is so stable and powerful – get buy in and respect from the bottom
    4. Our understanding of ape hierarchies is further complicated by the fact that there is a third type of dominance that exists alongside formal dominance and power. For example, when the alpha male places a car tire on one of the drums in the indoor hall with the intention of lying down on it, one of the females may push him away and sit down herself. Females also remove objects, sometimes even food, from the hands of the males without meeting with any resistance
    5. They have things to offer that cannot be taken by force, such as sexual and political favors, and their silent diplomacy, which helps to calm tempers. This provides the females with a good deal of leverage: if being popular among the females is critical for the stability of a male’s leadership, he had better be lenient and accomdating towards them
    6. Quite the opposite from subhuman primates, a man must be generous to be respected
  28. Mutual fear as the basis of alliance formation makes nations weigh in on the lighter side of the balance. The result is a power equilibrium in which all nations hold influential positions. The same principle applies to social psychology and is known as the formation of “minimal winning coalitions.”
  29. A rational choice is based on an estimate of the consequences.
  30. The hankering for power itself is almost certainly inborn. The question now is, how do chimpanzees achieve their ambitions? This too may be hereditary. Some people are said to have “political instinct,” and there is no reason why we should not say the same of chimpanzees. I doubt, however, whether this “instinct” is responsible for all the details of their strategies. Experience is needed to use innate social tendencies as a means to an end in the same way that a young bird born with wings to fly needs months of practice before it has mastered the art. In the case of political strategies, experience can play a role in two ways: directly, during the social processes themselves, or through the projection of old experiences into the future
  31. Sympathy is related to intimacy and familiarity
  32. Sharing
    1. For the adult male, the amount that he himself possesses is not important. What matters is who does the distributing among the group. (However, this only applies to incidental, extra food. Main meals and hunger can cause chimpanzee males to quarrel violently, as the Holloman colony showed.) Females, on the other hand, tend to share mainly with their own children and best friends and do not get into quarrels with other group members. Taking food by force is extremely rare in our colony; sharing is something apes learn young
    2. Their control rests on giving. They give protection to anyone who is threatened and receive respect and support in return. Also among humans the borderline between material and social generosity is scarcely distinguishable. Observations of human children by the psychologists Harvey Ginsburg and Shirley Miller have demonstrated that the most dominant children not only intervene in playground fights to protect losers but also are more willing to share with classmates. The investigators suggest that this behavior helps a child to command high status among peers. Similarly, we know from anthropological studies of pre-literate tribes that the chief exercises an economic role comparable to the control role: he gives and receives. He is rich but does not exploit his people, because he gives huge feasts and helps the needy. The gifts and goods he receives flow back into the community. A chief who tries to keep everything for himself puts his position in jeopardy. Noblesse oblige, or, as Sahlins said, “A man must be generous to be respected.” This universal human system, the collection and redistribution of possessions by the chief, or his modern equivalent, the government, is the same as that used by chimpanzees; all we have to do is replace “possessions” by “support and other social favors.”
      1. Honor this golden rule of generosity in all areas of life. Give more than you receive in every manner
  33. Reciprocation
    1. The influence of the recent past is always overestimated. When we are asked to name the greatest human inventions we tend to think of the telephone, the electric light bulb, and the silicon chip rather than the wheel, the plough, and the taming of fire. Similarly the origins of modern society are sought in the advent of agriculture, trade, and industry, whereas in fact our social history is a thousand times older than these phenomena. It has been suggested that food sharing was a strong stimulus in furthering the evolution of our tendency to reciprocal relations. Would it not be more logical to assume that social reciprocity existed earlier and that tangible exchanges such as food sharing stem from this phenomenon? There are indications of reciprocity in the nonmaterial behaviors of chimps. This is seen, for instance, in their coalitions, nonintervention alliances (A remains neutral if B does the same), sexual bargaining (A tolerates B mating after B has groomed A), and reconciliation blackmail (A refuses to have contact with B unless B “greets” A). It is interesting that reciprocity occurs in both the negative and the positive sense. Nikkie’s habit of individually punishing females who a short time before joined forces against him has already been described. In this way he repaid a negative action with another negative action. We regularly see this mechanism in operation before the group separates for the night. This is the time when differences are squared, no matter when these differences may have arisen. For example, one morning a conflict breaks out between Mama and Oor. Oor rushes to Nikkie and with wild gestures and exaggeratedly loud screams persuades him to attack her powerful opponent. Nikkie attacks Mama, and Oor wins. That evening, however, a good six hours later, we hear the sound of a scuffle in the sleeping quarters. The keeper tells me later that Mama has attacked Oor in no uncertain manner. Needless to say Nikkie was nowhere in the vicinity. Negative behavior hardly enters into the theories about reciprocity that anthropologists and sociologists have developed. Despite the emphasis on powerful exchanges there has not been much theoretical progress
    2. Every individual voluntarily enters and stays in any relationship only as long as it is adequately satisfactory in terms of rewards and costs. Interactions between humans have been regarded as a kind of trading in advantageous and disadvantageous behavior. Here too reciprocity is an important theme, not only in the positive form but also in its negative form.
    3. This give-and-take mechanism is a very old, and very fundamental feature of our species and of chimps. Much of the process may take place in the subconscious, but we all know from experience that things come bubbling up to the surface when the difference between costs and benefits becomes too great. It is then that we voice our feelings. By and large, however, reciprocity is something that takes place silently. The principle of exchange makes it possible actively to teach someone something: good behavior is rewarded; bad behavior is punished
    4. Life in a chimpanzee group is like a market in power, sex, affection, support, intolerance, and hostility. The two basic rules are: one good turn deserves another and an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth
  34. The major themes found and discussed in the chimpanzee colony
    1. Formalization – ranks are formalized. When they become unclear a dominance struggle ensues, after which the winner refuses reconciliation as long as his new status is not formally recognized
    2. Influence – an individual’s influence on group processes does not always correspond to his or her rank position. It also depends on personality, age, experience, and connections. I regard our oldest male and oldest female as the most influential group members
    3. Coalitions – interventions in conflicts serve either to help friends and relatives or to build up powerful positions. The second, opportunistic type of intervention is seen specifically in the coalition formation of adult males and goes hand in hand with isolation tactics. There is evidence for a similar sex difference in humans
    4. Balance – in spite of their rivalry, males form strong social bonds among themselves. They tend to develop a balanced power system based on their coalitions, individual fighting abilities, and support from females
    5. Stability – relationships among females are less hierarchically organized and much more stable than among males. A need for stability is also reflected in the females’ attitude toward male status competition. They even mediate between males
    6. Exchanges – the human economic system, with its reciprocal transactions and centralization, is recognizable in the group life of chimpanzees. They exchange social favors rather than gifts or goods, and their support flows to a central individual who uses the prestige derived from it to provide social security. This is his responsibility, in the sense that he may undermine his own position if he fails to redistribute the support received
    7. Manipulation – chimpanzees are intelligent manipulators. Their ability is clear enough in their use of tools, but it is even more pronounced in the use of others as social instruments
  35. To my eyes, the most striking result is that there seem to be two layers of social organization. The first layer we see is a clear-cut rank order, at least among the most dominant individuals. Although primatologists spend a lot of energy discussing the value of the “dominance concept,” they all know that it is impossible to ignore this hierarchical structure. The debate is not about its existence but about the degree to which knowledge of rank relationships helps to explain social processes. I think that, so long as we concentrate on the formal hierarchy, the explanations will be very poor indeed. We should also look behind it, at the second layer: a network of positions of influence. These positions are much more difficult to define, and I consider my descriptions in terms of influence and power only as imperfect first attempts. What I have seen, though, is that individuals losing a top rank certainly do not fall into oblivion: they are still able to pull many strings. In the same way, an individual rising in rank and at first sight appearing to be the big boss does not automatically have the greatest say in all matters. If it is hard to explain this duality of the social organization without using human terms, it is because we have very similar behind-the-scenes influences in our own society. When Aristotle referred to man as a political animal he could not know just how near the mark he was. Our political activity is part of an evolutionary heritage we share with our close relatives. What my work at Arnhem as taught me, however, is that the root of politics are older than humanity
  36. Human’s daily dabbling in politics are not always recognized as such because people are past masters in camouflaging their true intentions. Politicians for example, are vociferous about their ideals and promises but are careful not to disclose personal aspirations for power. This is not mean to be a reproach, because after all everyone plays the same game. I would go further and say that we are largely unaware that we are playing a game and hide our motives not only from others but also underestimate the immense effect they have on our own behavior. Chimps on the other hand, are quite blatant about their “baser” motives. Their interest in power is not greater than that of humanity, it is just more obvious
  37. To compare humans with chimps can be taken to be just as insulting, or perhaps even more so, because human motives seem to become more animal as a result. And yet, among chimps, power politics are not merely “bad” or “dirty.” They give to the life of the Arnhem community its logical coherence and even a democratic structure. All parties search for social significance and continue to do so until a temporary balance is achieved. This balance determines the new hierarchical positions. Changing relationships reached point where they become “frozen” in more or less fixed ranks. When we see how this formalization takes place during reconciliations, we understand that the hierarchy is a cohesive factor, which puts limits on competition and conflict. Child care, play, sex, and cooperation depend on the resultant stability. But underneath the surface the situation is constantly in a state of flux. The balance of power is texted daily, and if it proves too weak it is challenged and a new balance established. Consequently chimpanzee politics are also constructive. Humans should regard it as an honor to be classed as political animals.
What I got out of it
  1. Female support counts for as much as nearly anything, coalitions/reconciliation as important in chimp’s life as in human life, much more about cooperation than simply brute strength/size/speed, aggressive cooperation is one of the highest forms of strategy, the need for physical contact is crucial for social bonding and reconciliation, power is truly comprised of two things: social influence and formal dominance, must get buy in from the bottom of the group in order to have a stable hierarchy, man must be generous in order to be respected, stability vita for a well functioning group and hierarchy, hierarchy is a cohesive and a constructive factor which put limits on competition and conflict