What Can We Learn From Chimpanzees?

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Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes (Book Review)

Amongst chimpanzees, there is always a clear dominant male. At the Arnham colony in the Netherlands, Yeroen is the Alpha. However, one of his subordinates, Luit, has begun to show clear signs of insubordination. Earlier in the day, Luit openly mated with one of the females. Yeroen has never allowed this to happen before. Later in the day, Luit walked in circles around Yeroen, throwing sticks and staging a clear intimidation display. Now, Luit is continuing his intimidation. Luit climbs a tree so that he is situated above Yeroen. He then jumps from the tree and delivers a resounding slap to his adversary. Yeroen runs screaming for support. He then rallies a large group of sympathisers. Together, they chase Luit for several minutes. Eventually, however, the group let Luit be.

It takes a female to help the males make up

However, Luit continues to intimidate Yeroen. Eventually, the two males are left sitting facing each other, around six feet apart. But they avoid looking at each other. Luit watches some pigeons as they fly over. Yeroen stares at the ground. Krom, one of the females then joins them. She begins to groom Luit. After a little time has past, Krom turns and grooms Yeroen. However, this results in Luit momentarily becoming angry. After he has calmed, Krom then returns to groom Luit again. She continues to switch back and forth between the males a number of times. Eventually, Luit gets up and walks over to Yeroen. The two males stand facing each other in an intimidating manner. Finally, Yeroen relents and embraces Luit. Luit then turns to offer Yeroen his backside, and Yeroen grooms him. This backside offering is common during reconciliation episodes. Krom’s job now complete, she leaves the males to continue their bonding.

What can we learn from chimpanzees?

You may be wondering why on earth I am reviewing a book about chimpanzees on a website that discusses emotional well-being. The reason is as follows.
Start Quote I have come to believe that the best way to understand an animal’s behaviour, is to view it in the context of its wider animal family. For example, a species of cat is better understood within the context of the wider cat (Felidae) family. This group includes lions, jaguars and leopards. End Quote
Understanding how each species of cat has developed, helps us to better understand the family as a whole. And each family member can be better understood within this wider context. Chimpanzees and humans are two closely related species within the ape family.

Two central features of human relationships

One of my primary interests at the moment is human social interaction. Within this context I have increasingly come to see two issues to be of primary importance. These are Empathy & Aggression. Amongst mamals, males typically fight for dominance within a group. Apes are no exception. And humans are no exception either. Within De Waal’s account of the dominance struggle at the Arnham colony, we see all the behaviours that exist in human power struggles. Humans can be quite subtle when fighting with one another. However in the Arnham Colony, it is as though the underlying behaviours have been highlighted in luminous marker pen.

Chimpanzees struggle to swallow their pride

One beautiful example (unfortunately recounted in a different De Waal book ) involves a behaviour developed by Yeroen. As described in the opening of this review, Yeroen and Luit would typically refuse to make up after a fight. However, they actually wanted to resolve the conflict. One might say that they had an emotional need to make up. But, pride would inhibit them. So Yeroen developed a little trick to help cover his pride. He would suddenly begin hooting and drawing attention to a random place on the grassy ground. Many of the other chimpanzees would then come running over in order to see what the fuss was about. Soon, however, the chimpanzees would all realise that there was nothing to see. So one by one they would wander away. This would leave two chimpanzees continuing to look intently at the spot in the grass – where nothing actually existed! You can guess who would be left: Yeroen and Luit. And soon they would be grooming and ‘making up’ again. Yeroen simply pretended there was something to look at in order to bring Luit near him. Once they were together, it was easier to make up.
Start Quote From my perspective, this vividly mirrors the kinds of behaviours we see in human relationships. After an argument, our pride often stops us from being able to apologise. But after some time has passed, we sometimes find something to mutually laugh about. In the shared moment of humour we conveniently forget that we were angry with one another half an hour before. End Quote

One of my favourite books ever!

Admittedly, I am a huge ape enthusiast. I’m sure this has come across as you've read this review. Despite this, I struggle to imagine many people not enjoying this book. To top everything off, Chimpanzee Politics is packed with illustrative photos which the author (an avid amateur photographer), took whilst he was working at Arnhem. First published in 1982, this book continues to be reprinted. The latest version is the 25th anniversary edition. Time magazine has listed De Waal as one of its 100 most influential people. He's in my personal list of top 10 most influential thinkers.

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