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Chimpanzee Politics

By carmen3rre Dec 11, 2010 2098 Words
Chimpanzee Politics by Frans de Waal chronicles a colony of 23 chimpanzees who live in an outdoor, open-air space at the Arnhem Zoo in the Netherlands. Of these 23 chimpanzees there are four males: Yeroen, Luit, Nikkie and Dandy. The colony also consists of three female subgroups, the largest made up of Mama, Gorilla, Franje, Amber and three children, Moniek, Roosje and Fons. The second largest subgroup includes Krom, Spin, Jimmie and her two sons Jakie and Jonas. And the third female subgroup consists of Tepel, and her two children Tarzan and Wouter. Puist is also considered part of Tepel’s subgroup. Even though she usually associates more with the males than with the females and children, there is an exception when it comes to Tarzan and Wouter, to whom Puist plays an aunt-like role. There are three remaining females, Oor, Zwart and Henny, but they play a rather small role in this particular book.

Throughout Chimpanzee Politics, de Waal attempts to explain the social organization of chimpanzees. A benefit of being able to observe these primates in such a facility is that fieldworkers are able to see the animals on a regular basis, witnessing the countless social interactions that take place. De Waal notes that much of the research on chimpanzees has been done through observations in their wild habitat, and although “these observations are extremely important...it is impossible to follow social processes in every detail in the jungle...[Researchers] will not fail to note the results of social changes, but they will often be ignorant of the causes” (p. 4). Thus, with a space in which researchers can watch the animals daily, the more we are able to understand the social dynamics of the chimpanzees.

Frans de Waal conducted his research by means of observations. He monitored the chimpanzees’ behavior, their relationships, their habits. He divided his studies into categories to emphasize main themes and key components within this culture: personalities, power takeovers, restless stability, sexual privileges and social mechanisms.

The social relationships between chimpanzees are constantly changing, and are mostly categorized within and across genders (i.e., male/male, male/female, female/female). As to be expected, interactions between males are far different than those between females. Relationships between males seem to center around the ideas of sex and power. De Waal frequently discusses the role of intimidation and submission with males. Males commonly use intimidation as a means to dominate, such as with bluff displays. During a bluff display a chimpanzee’s hair will stand on end while they stomp and grunt. These displays serve to create a sort of superiority over another male, and sometimes result in conflict, yet it is rare that chimpanzees actually fight. The author describes the males’ quarrels as “controlled fighting.”

“They only bite extremities, usually a finger or a foot, and less frequently a shoulder or the head...Since this is virtually the only way the males fight each other, they cannot be out to prove their respective physical strengths. The crucial factor is their capacity to fight effectively within the rules. A male must be able to get his hands and feet quickly out of the way, and he must equally quickly be able to seize hold of his opponent’s hand or foot” (p. 104)

In times of tension grooming is a common practice, and differences are often pacified by kissing or even licking each other’s wounds. Males also practice submission to dominance with “greetings” (and females also practice this, as well), which de Waal describes as “no more than a sequence of short, panting grunts known as pant-grunting,” which is commonly accompanied by a series of bows (p. 78). These greetings may be taken even further by the dominant male by performing a bluff-over, in which “the dominant ape steps or leaps over the ‘greeter’ [while] the submissive ape ducks and puts his arms up to protect his head” (p. 78). These displays are commonly performed by lower-ranking males or females as a show of compliance to a high-ranking male, more specifically the alpha male. Furthermore, it emphasizes the hierarchy between males.

In Chimpanzee Politics we learn of the power struggle surrounding Yeroen, Luit and Nikkie. At the start of de Waal’s research, Mama actually held the leadership position, until her and Gorilla were removed from the colony for three months, at which point Yeroen became the alpha male. However, with time Luit slowly started to take over the leadership role. It began when Luit openly mated with Spin in close proximity to Yeroen, something that is usually not tolerated by the alpha male. Then Luit and Nikkie formed a coalition. Nikkie supported Luit and they worked together to dethrone Yeroen. As a result of separating interventions, Yeroen’s ties with the females slowly deteriorated and he became isolated, ultimately losing his power. Yeroen reacted with tantrums, screaming and kicking, an apparent sign of desperation. As time passed, power shifted once again. After Luit attacked Nikkie on a few occasions, their collaboration ultimately ended, and both Nikkie and Yeroen became less submissive toward Luit. Tensions between Nikkie and Luit increased, and therefore resulted in frequent grooming sessions. Eventually, Nikkie and Yeroen displayed a bold gesture of unity.

“When Nikkie began to display Yeroen usually went and stood close behind him, wrapped his arms around his waist, pressed his lower belly against Nikkie’s bottom and hooted gently. This gesture is called ‘mounting,’ and it certainly originates from a sexual act...but has no sexual significance...Nikkie and Yeroen literally formed a closed front.” (p. 126)

In time, Nikkie became the new alpha male, but it was rather short-lived. Based on his actions, the keeper decided Nikkie was not prepared to fill such a role, and he was removed from the colony for the rest of the season. While Nikkie was gone, Luit regained his dominance, but only to be broken upon Nikkie’s arrival when once again he formed a coalition with Yeroen. Power continued to shift through the years, but in the end, Nikkie takes on the leadership position. However, unlike Luit and Yeroen who had been lone leaders, Nikkie shared his role with Yeroen, whose duty was to keep order and peace.

The female chimpanzees also play a highly influential role when it comes to the success of a dominant male. As with Yeroen, without the support of the females, a male risks isolation and loss of power. In a population such as this, the females have more political influence. They will defend certain males, aiding in the rise to power, or simply to protect. For example, consider this situation when Luit is trapped in a tree, cornered by Nikkie and Yeroen:

“Nikkie and Yeroen...climb up toward where Luit is sitting. Luit has no option but to fight back, because he cannot escape. Nikkie and Yeroen grab hold of him and bite him, but this unequal struggle does not last long, because the highest-ranking females band together and quickly follow Luit’s attackers up into the tree. Yeroen is bitten by both Mama and Puist. Mama then drags Yeroen out of the tree and chases him...Puist stays in the tree and, together with Gorilla, launches an attack on Nikkie” (p. 129)

As highlighted by this passage, females can provide critical conflict support. Shortly after this episode Nikkie was removed, but this example shows how females interact with the males. Males often run to females for comfort, reassurance, and protection, because often females will band together to defend against a male, as we see in the above situation. Females also serve to as mediators between male conflict. De Waal provides one example by discussing how one female chimpanzee presented herself to a male, and as he followed her she slowly approached his opponent. Both males began to groom her and eventually she left, leaving the males to groom each other and therefore mollified tension (p. 107). Male and female relationships also have a sense of reciprocity. Females want a safe environment to raise their offspring, and males offer protection mothers and their children, and in exchange females offer support or grant sexual privileges.

Relationships between females are generally less confrontational, conflicts are far more rare. Although they do have a hierarchy, it differs from that of the males in that it stays stable for years, and rather than being determined by physical superiority, female’s are ranked by personality and age (p. 178). In this colony, Mama is at the top of the female hierarchy, followed by Puist and Gorilla. Females often form strong bonds together, and therefore help each other against male aggression. The females in a particular subgroup watch over each other’s children and support one another. For example, Amber has a special attachment to Mama’s daughter, Moniek, and helps care for Mama care for her. Unlike males, who use interventions as a way to gain power, females carry out sympathy-biased interventions in which they defend family and close friends (p. 191).

One of the most fascinating observations that Frans de Waal made is the chimpanzees’ ability to strategize. As the alpha male, Nikkie utilized the strategy of divide and rule. He kept interactions between Yeroen and Luit limited, and frequently intervened in order to prevent them from forming a coalition that could threaten Nikkie’s leadership. This proves that chimpanzees are aware of not only their own relationships, but of the relationships of others, as well. The same strategic intelligence can be noted with Yeroen, who seemed to demonstrate the ability to rationalize. Yeroen deliberately formed a coalition with Nikkie instead of Luit, Yeroen was aware the Luit had no use for him, but Nikkie however would grow to depend on Yeroen, and together they would dethrone Luit and Yeroen would still maintain a high-ranking role in the colony. This shows the chimpanzees’ future-oriented behavior, “this ability to consider a remote goal and weight the consequences of a choice that could explain why a male, such as Yeroen, formed the alliance that ultimately offered the best prospects” (p. 186). Strategizing is of course not limited to just males, the females strategize as well, but use it for different purposes. The females strategize to create a secure environment, the often partake in sexual bargaining with males as a way to get what they want, such as protection of their children.

Despite the many conflicts discussed in Chimpanzee Politics, chimpanzees also work together, collaborating to achieve a goal. One chimpanzee will hold a branch steady while another gathers branches, and males often let females to take things right from their hands. “Chimpanzee males are surprisingly generous when it comes to material things...Their control rests on giving. They give protection to anyone who is threatened and receive respect and support in return” (p. 199).

This book is filled with implications of human behavior, the most notable being the ability to strategize, their capacity to weigh options, predict future outcomes and apply a plan to reach a goal. The whole concept of reciprocity within this colony of apes also hints at human behavior, the idea of doing something to gain something, whether it be through coalitions, nonintervention alliances, sexual bargaining or reconciliation blackmail (p. 200). Although humans may not use these exact tactics, we do apply the same notions of reciprocity. This exhibits the acute awareness the chimpanzees have of their own surroundings and relationships. One example in particular emphasizes the way a male chimp will shift his attitude with the intention of reaching a certain goal. Luit, for example, upon the dethronement of Yeroen, Luit changed his aim to stabilizing his new role (p. 117). During conflicts, Luit would support the more disadvantaged individual, and commonly intervened in quarrels so as to preserve tranquility and safety among the group. De Waal astutely pointed out that the chimpanzees’ “interest in power is not greaer than that of humanity; it is just more obvious” (p. 208).

By writing this book, Frans de Waal aimed to create a connection between apes and humans. His explanation of the complex social patterns that exist amongst a colony of apes in a zoo showed that chimpanzees possess a keen thought process that grants them the ability to carry out certain tasks that were previously believed to be unique to humans. This research provides insight into the reasoning behind the chimpanzees’ actions, their motives. The rationale behind such behavior emphasize that it is not just instinct that drives them, but intelligence.

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