Monkey business all about winning

Macachiavellian Intelligence

October 5, 2007

If this review were written by a rhesus monkey, the author would get an O mouth threat and a clear chance of being bitten. Unless, of course, the author were dominant to the reviewer, in which case it would be a sycophantic fear grin in hopes of payoff - either promotion or sex. The only actual altruists in rhesus society are mothers, but The Times Higher doesn't ask authors' mothers to review books.

Dario Maestripieri has spent more than 20 years studying rhesus macaques; he knows what he is talking about. Rhesus live in troops of about 20 to 80 animals where everyone is acquainted with everyone else. Female matrilines remain together as allies for life. Daughters inherit their mothers' rank. Males change troops, which avoids inbreeding.

Males must also juggle alliances to get ahead: male henchmen and female "friends" (who may or may not deign to mate with their male friend when they come into oestrus). The monkeys are very good at assessing which of their allies, or those of their rivals, are nearby and what they can get away with. This is "Macachiavellian intelligence": using others to further one's own advantage.

Maestripieri tells the story with incisive prose, sharp wit and admirable brevity, and the book should appeal to a wide audience from cynical teenagers to economists who believe that the "invisible hand" of competition underlies all human society. He also has perfect timing. The idea that our human brains evolved largely to deal with the demands of society is very much in fashion.

What Maestripieri doesn't say is that other macaque species can be altogether more relaxed. Bonnet and stumptailed macaques, for instance, tolerate and co operate with their troop-mates to a degree unknown among rhesus. One is struck by their "good nature" rather than their pursuit of power. The two kinds of chimpanzees, our nearest relatives, show a similar contrast. Common chimpanzees are competitive to the point of being murderous. Bonobo chimps famously lubricate possible tensions with sex, but they also have far less tension to begin with. Clearly, the intensity of aggression can be modified during the course of evolution even in closely related species.

Rhesus range from India to China, through Himalayan snows, tropical swamps, temples, bazaars and railway stations. Humans, of course, range everywhere. The sweeter-natured primates I cited have more restricted ranges than the nastier ones. Does this mean that there is a correlation between hierarchical aggression and success in the world? Maestripieri thinks so. He compares rhesus society to the army - organised to conquer people and occupy lands.

What he doesn't seem to notice is the human capacity for deep social bonds. Within a platoon, even in a teenage gang, the human basis for success is not simply personal advancement but also loyalty to each other. He admits that paternal care for offspring is a human trait but doesn't call it fatherly love. Rhesus-style negotiation of sex and protection and power is the stuff of every soap opera - but romantic love and bonding is a trait that rhesus do not share. This does not make us less primate. Gorillas who bond with each other for all their adult lives behave very much as if they have romantic love.

In short, a primatologist should respect each species on its own terms. You may enjoy this account of monkey Machiavellianism, but when it's extrapolated wholesale to humans you might also feel a bit like biting back.

Alison Jolly is visiting senior scientist, department of biology and evolutionary science, Sussex University. She is the editor of Ringtailed Lemur Biology: Lemur catta in Madagascar (2006).

Macachiavellian Intelligence: How Rhesus Macaques and Humans Have Conquered the World

Author - Dario Maestripieri
Publisher - Chicago University Press
Pages - 192
Price - £14.00
ISBN - 9780226501178

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