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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 1-Mar-18


Sunday 11-March-18

Primate Politics: How we are not that different to our chimpanzees cousins

Chimpanzees have 98.5% shared DNA with humans. They are more like us than they are like gorillas. So can we learn something about ourselves by studying chimpanzees?

Chimps live in social groups with about 50 members. These have a leader and a hierarchy. They are male dominated, with competition between males for position and females. The have what Nietzsche calls a 'will to power'and constantly seek it and are aware of current power structures. Many of their calls and actions talk about this.

Dominant males will puff up and go around making a lot of noise. They need support and so friendship and affiliation is important. To take over, they build coalitions. They start by aligning themselves with top-ranking males and work upwards. A basic sign of association is grooming as chimps build social capital with others they may want to influence later.

Stronger males prefer unequal resource distribution, even if they are poor, as this makes the hierarchy stable and clear. Weaker males will climb trees to get away from aggressive alpha males, but will make defiant calls when at a safe distance. In such ways demeaning use of power invites reactive rebellion. When there is a leadership contest, weaker chimps will support whoever they think will be good to them (provided there seems a good chance of them winning together).

Loyalty is not forever and there are ever-shifting coalitions of convenience. When one male is very strong, others may gang up against him. In this way, males of similar strength still have a chance of becoming top chimp. Hence they form 'minimum winning coalitions' which just pass the 50% mark. This is the best form of coalition as a leader who becomes too selfish or weak can easily be deposed.

Older males often still have a lot of power. You can last much longer as the power behind the throne, the big beast, the shadowy advisor who is a cunning puppeteer. In this way, weak leaders get elected rather than those who may act against their supporting coalition (even if doing so acts for the majority).

A presidential guard, a secret police and other services are often created to serve a dominant leader. These have a separate and shorter chain of command and have fearsome power. They are run by highly loyal individuals such as family members and old friends.

The most effective alpha males are not bullies. They create loyal followers, particularly amongst their inner cadre. They redistribute resources, including taking food off strong others and giving it to weaker individuals. Just who gets and does not get food will be based on desired support and rivalry. Bribery is quite common. Chimp males will even go around kissing babies to show females they are good fathers.

Chimps are good at collaborating for common gain. Who your friends and enemies are is critical knowledge.

They will patrol their territory daily. Neighboring groups will not indulge in big battles (this is uniquely human). Larger confrontation tends to be stand-off, throwing missiles and screaming. Rather, 4 or 5 males will creep into enemy territory and attack lone individuals. This is where inter-group killing happens.

Humans still kill less, despite their wars. In the 20th century, only 1% were killed in war, while in chimp attrition, more like 15% are killed in the ongoing raids. Human rivalry is hence much safer, desire the occasional bloodbath. We handle other groups with gifts, treaties and other rituals.

Unlike chimps, bonobos are friendly with other bonobos groups, probably because they only live in less hostile places, while chimps can be found across Africa. We are related to both, and hence have both aggressive and accepting tendencies.

We are naturally political and very biased toward our own parties and against rivals. We naturally polarize into extreme us-and-them positions, where you are 'with us or against us'. We also will ally into larger groups, such as at country level, when there is a significant external threat.

Although we can operate in large countries and organizations, we are programmed to live in small scale society, and make decisions based on this. Kin selection is a common criterion, as it is for many species who seek to propagate their genes.

Overall, we share many traits with chimpanzees, but are also influenced by other evolutionary ancestors, as well as unique human abilities, notably in cognition and language. Nevertheless, it can still be worth remembering our ancestry when trying to understand why we do what we do.

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