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Chimpanzee Power Politics

Chimpanzee Power Politics

A couple of months ago, I produced a video entitled ‘Chimpanzee Power Politics’. It focussed on the pioneering work of the primatologist Frans de Waal. In his book Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes, de Waal analyzed the behavior of a group of Chimps housed at Burgers Zoo in Arnhem, the Netherlands. This was the first zoo in the world to keep a large troop of Chimpanzees in an open enclosure. de Waal and his researchers were, in this setting able to observe the social interactions within the group uninterrupted and from a position of safety, impossible to do in the wild. His case study became the foundation of modern primatology, introducing the concept of “Machiavellian Intelligence” into the analysis of simian behaviors.

Using de Waal’s research and insights, I want to outline the core features of Chimpanzee politics and interpret them through the lens of elite theory. This is a fruitful exercise because Chimpanzee political interactions seem to resemble, at an underlying level, human power and social dynamics. They show aspects of hierarchy competition without the trappings of culture and ideology. They thereby show us more clearly the fundamental framework or base code of the political. Most importantly, they introduce us to a distinction between different kinds of political conflict. There are fights with your rivals, and there are fights with your enemies.

Frans de Waal

The male chimpanzees studied by de Waal competed for social and sexual dominance within their group. In any given situation there would be an alpha male, an individual who could command the respect of the other chimps. His subordinates acknowledge his status through gestures of deference, such as bowing before him, and with mating privileges, males moving aside, and females presenting. He would maintain the loyalty of the females in the group by going into ‘control mode’. This would involve providing them with food, such as by climbing a tree to access difficult-to-reach leaves and giving them to his subordinates below. He would also offer protection, defending his progeny when another Chimp was being too rough or harmful. Mothers strongly appreciated this sort of behavior. Finally, the alpha displayed a degree of affection for his subjects, bonding with each individual by grooming them.

Rival males challenge the alpha by isolating him from his support. They begin by showing him a lack of respect. They do this by buffing, their hair standing on end while they refuse to acknowledge the alpha’s dominance in gestures of subordination. They then prevent him from providing, protecting, and bonding with the group. For example, whenever the alpha sits next to a female, a rival male may then attack the female. He will continue to do this over an extended period of time, eroding the alpha’s connection with his subordinate. While he is doing this, the rival male will also be bonding with the females whenever they are away from the alpha. He will provide them with food and will groom them. In time, the females learn that the way to avoid being attacked is to avoid sitting next to the alpha and that they will have safety with the rival. The usurper’s work is complete.

The competitor’s isolation of the alpha feeds into a broader pattern of conflict between the two. The two males will have multiple standoffs during the day. The competitor may refuse to show that he is subordinate; he may be buffing; he may even slap his opponent. The alpha then runs off to his base of support for help: the females. Together, they will chase off the usurper. However, by eroding the alpha’s ability to protect and provide for the females, over time the rival removes the alpha’s reinforcements, equalizing the field of play. Sometimes males will even coordinate to break the coalition of the alpha: the main insurgent will focus on the leader, while another male will run interference with the females. Thus, the few times that violence breaks out, the alpha is isolated from his support and is vulnerable to the attacks of males, whether stronger or weaker, who have managed to gain more backers than their adversary.

However, the final victory of the chimp is not with the death of his opponent. Even when fighting breaks out it is usually relatively harmless: the males tend to bite limbs rather than injure vital organs. Moreover, throughout the process, the alpha and his competition engage in acts of reconciliation. After a standoff, the two males may embrace and groom each other. This is particularly important at night before going to bed: the two needed to establish a truce before entering the vulnerable situation of sleep. They did this by performing a set of gestures, a ritual, such as the alpha stepping over the other male. Likewise, the usurper becomes the alpha when he has gained the respect of the former alpha. The previous leader now bows down before the incumbent alpha and allows him to step over his body. Through this established set of ceremonies, the old ruler concedes authority to the new, and the competition is over.

To become king of the jungle requires more than brute strength and a penchant for violence. A male may reach the top for a while using such vicious tactics, but soon they will be defeated and cast aside. The name of the game is coalition: undermining the alpha’s support while building a counter-group of one’s own. The end state is one in which a male can command respect and obedience of the group, with every member willing to show him deference through recognized gestures and rituals. But even when he has reached the top, it is only a matter of time before the cycle begins again as a new challenger, perhaps with the help of the old alpha, confronts the current leader. Male chimps are compelled by their nature to enter such a competition, and so their society is one of constant hierarchical challenge and flux.

What is notable about Chimpanzee politics is how bloodless it is. Albeit de Waal’s chimps were in captivity, the fact that they could engage in these conflicts without killing one another is suggestive that they were involved in in-group status disputes. These chimps belonged to the same troop and if they had begun murdering each other it would not have been long until their social order had completely fragmented. It was necessary that the hierarchy competition between males did not devolve into bloodshed if the group and its members were to survive long-term. Thus, the rituals of reconciliation that males performed, both throughout the contest and at its end, were vital for maintaining a social system within which males could compete for power and status without destroying their opponents and the troop more broadly.

By contrast, chimps show no mercy to those belonging to external groups. As a threat to their food supply, other chimps present an existential threat to the individual and the troop. Consequently, males and females will kill chimpanzees from other tribes. Furthermore, they will decimate entire communities. There are no acts of reconciliation between chimp troops. They may even eat their victims for the taste of meat and, perhaps, as a humiliation of their enemy. Whereas in-group competition is non-lethal, conflict with external groups results in murder, war, and genocide.

If we were to analyze the behavior of de Waal’s Chimpanzees through the lens of Carl Schmitt’s thought, then strictly speaking male social and sexual dominance competitions are not political. For Schmitt, all political motives and actions are reducible to the distinction between “friend and enemy”. By ‘enemy’, Schmitt does not only mean those people with whom we have private and personal animosity. Rather, he is referring to a group of people who are recognized by another group as an existential threat to their community. If they lose to this other group, they will be conquered, and their way of life destroyed. In this rendering, the males who compete to be alphas are not enemies: opponents do not pose an existential threat to the survival of the group. Conversely, the conflict between chimpanzee groups is political: the victory of one troop leads to the annihilation of the other.

Carl Schmitt

Yet, while the competing males may be ‘friends’ when attacked by a rival troop, they are engaged in a form of conflict that is analogous to what we normally call the ‘political’. The males build coalitions, undermine the alliances of their foes, and jostle for supremacy within the hierarchy. When at the top, they play their partners off against each other to maintain power. For example, one alpha allied with male A against male B when it came to matters of status and worked with male B against male A when it came to mating. They are not enemies, but ‘rivals’. This term conveys the fact that the alpha and his opponents are engaged in a struggle for the same object, power within the troop. This means that friends can be rivals who compete for control over the political group, and by extension Schmittian friends can be in significant and sometimes even violent conflict. However, rivals are not a threat to the existence of the group. If a rival becomes an existential threat, he has moved from being a friend to an enemy.

This is a helpful distinction to make because it helps us to more clearly identify who is a friend and who is an enemy. The temptation is to count all threats as enemies. But there are several instances where conflict is between two rivals engaged in competition for social status. For example, there are influencers who will have some rough and tumble with each other on Twitter, but when push comes to shove they have each other’s back. There are, however, influencers who seek to destroy each other at all costs. These conflicts are not the same, and with the distinction between rivals and enemies, we have a better way of categorizing these differences. And, by extension, we will act accordingly.

There are two further points for further consideration. The first is the nature of power. No matter how strong or brutal the chimp is, it cannot rule unless it has built a coalition that can support it. Without this base, it has no mandate to justify or means to defend its rule against other coalitions. Thus, the art of politics is in building strong coalitions to help you win without making you depend on your supporters. Second, it is chimpanzee nature to compete. They cannot help it: they are compelled to contest with each other for status and mating rights. Humans are the same, particularly men. There is something within us that forces us, whether we are aware of it or not, to challenge one another for positions in the social hierarchy. A regime that fails to accept and harness this reality for its own ends will, in time, be destroyed. Nature cannot be withheld forever.