Frans De Waal revisits some old friends who, 20 years ago, showed him the similarities between chimp rivalry and the power plays of politicians
It is said that the best friends are made when you are young. This applies not only to my human pals but also to the many chimpanzees that I have come to know in my life. The chimps I met while I was a student still occupy the softest spots in my memory banks.
Despite having moved to North America, I visit the Netherlands, my native country, regularly, and stop by its Arnhem Zoo whenever I can to take a look at its chimpanzee colony. I am still recognised by the older generation. Mama, who must be close to 50, unerringly picks out my face from among hundreds of visitors, and moves her arthritic bones to the moat to greet me with grunts. But Gorilla is perhaps the happiest of all. Ever since I taught her to bottle-feed an adoptive daughter, 20 years ago, we have enjoyed a close bond. Without my intervention she might never have raised any young. Both Mama and Gorilla now have grandchildren, who look at me as a stranger who, astonishingly, acts as if he belongs. The colony has around 30 apes, and remains the largest and most successful of its kind in the world.
The male chimpanzees, the big guys, strut around with their hair standing up, occasionally castigating one of their underlings. On average, in captivity, male chimpanzees live ten years less than females, and the difference may be even greater in the wild. Male chimpanzees' lives are stressful and tense, pressures heightened by the physical risks they take when they fight one another. All the male chimpanzees I knew as a student are dead.
In the late 1970s, I chronicled the social dramas of the chimpanzees' colony in Arnhem. The conclusion of my research was that male chimpanzees are power-hungry Machiavellians. In the years before I wrote my book Chimpanzee Politics, I learnt a lot from addressing groups of zoo visitors.They taught me that the most powerful way to tell my story was to bring the chimpanzee personalities to life and pay attention to events rather than abstractions.
In science, items that cannot be quantified run the risk of being tossed aside as mere anecdotes. It is hard to generalise from single events, but does this justify the contempt in which they are held by academics? In their book The Final Days journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein describe Richard Nixon's reaction to his loss of power: "Between sobs, Nixon was plaintive ... How had a simple burglary done all this? ... (He) got down on his knees ... leaned over and struck his fist on the carpet, crying aloud, 'What have I done? What has happened?"' Nixon was the first and only US president to resign, so this surely cannot be much more than an anecdote. But does this make the story less significant? My chimpanzees had tantrums similar to Nixon's (minus the words) under similar conditions.When the oldest male, Yeroen, was losing his top rank to another male, in the middle of a confrontation he would suddenly drop out of a tree, like a rotten apple, to writhe and squirm on the ground screaming pitifully, waiting to be comforted by the rest of the group. "Being weaned from power" is such an apt expression because Yeroen's relapse into childlike behaviour was just like that of a youngster being weaned from his mother's milk. Despite his noisy charade, the child keeps an eye on mum for any signs of change. In the same way, Yeroen did not neglect to keep a check on who approached him. If the group around him was big enough, and especially if Mama was among them, he would gain instant courage. With his supporters in tow he would rekindle the confrontation that before he seemed to have been losing.
Although it was written for a general audience, Chimpanzee Politics also found its way to classrooms and business consultants, and got a major shot in the arm in 1994, when the speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, put it on the recommended reading list for freshman congressmen. Hearing about chimpanzee power plays may help politicians recognise elementary political strategies that they probably apply unconsciously. Moreover, they will learn that, despite their constant jockeying for position there is a certain internal logic, even morality to the social system that emerges. Success is not just a matter of wiping out the opposition. In the wild, male chimpanzees depend on one another for hunting and territorial defence.Compromise and reconciliation are as much part of their political skills as fighting power.
Since I left Arnhem, there have been many interesting developments. Some were gruesome, such as the killing and castration of one of our males by two rivals. This brought home to me that the absence of compromise can have the most horrible consequences.
In 1984 two males, Yeroen and Dandy, banded together against Nikkie, who was then in charge of the group. Their alliance drove Nikkie to a desperate attempt to jump off the Arnhem island. Unfortunately, he did not make it across the moat, and drowned. The newspapers dubbed it a "suicide" but it more likely was a panic-attack with a fatal outcome. With Nikkie's death, the closeness between Yeroen and Dandy evaporated. Rivalry predictably took its place. A year after the tragedy, in 1985, the zoo's winter hall was turned into a film theatre to test the chimpanzees' responses to two-dimensional images. The Family of Chimps, a documentary that had been filmed when Nikkie was still group leader, was shown. When a life-sized Nikkie appeared on the wall, Dandy immediately ran screaming to Yeroen, jumping literally into the old male's lap. Yeroen, too, had an uncertain grin on his face. Nikkie's mysterious "resurrection'' had temporarily restored their old pact.
Opportunism is a major part of chimpanzee politics, and most of us would not hesitate to use the same term for its human counterpart. The shouting between ideological factions, and the occasional throwing of objects in the parliaments of emerging democracies, hint at a history of our political systems that is incompletely captured in the lofty rhetoric that political scientists tend to reserve for it. There is, of course, also the obvious connection between sex and power.
If we follow Harold Laswell's famous definition of politics as a social process determining "who gets what, when, and how,'' there can be little doubt that chimpanzees engage in politics. Since in both humans and their closest relatives the process involves bluff, alliances, and isolation tactics, a common terminology is warranted. But, as so often in the history of ape-human comparisons, changes were made to the definition of a phenomenon to exclude the primate data. Glendon Schubert, a political scientist, proposed that the term "politics" be reserved for relationships within groups of 100 plus who have no kinship ties. This excludes most social animals.
What fascinated me when I wrote Chimpanzee Politics, and still now, is the absence of stability in social groups. Primatologists tend to speak of "social organisation'' as if there is a fixed structure, like a skeleton, around which social life revolves. But whenever one thinks: "This is it, they have figured out how to get along and who's the boss", one detects subtle undercurrents of change. A young male is growing up and beginning to make waves. An old chap is starting to tire of lengthy charging displays and his rivals seem to be taking notice. One popular male's attention sways the females to switch allegiance. Chimpanzee society is always in a state of flux, so that each time I visit Arnhem, the caretakers have to fill me in as if I have missed several episodes of a soap opera: "Now A is leaning towards B, who is reluctant to grab power because he was beaten up by C, but once his wounds have healed, the females will help him get even as they like him a lot more than they like C.'' Chimpanzees, like people, do not seem to like to sit back and enjoy completely stable social arrangements. If there is any way a chimp can improve its position why not give it a go, seems to be the way chimpanzees think. Consequently, the politicking never ends. As Thomas Hobbes noted about humans: "I put for a generall inclination of all mankind, a perpetuall and restlesse desire of Power after power, that ceaseth only in Death".
Frans B. M. De Waal is C. H. Candler professor of primate behaviour at Emory University, Atlanta. A revised edition of his Chimpanzee Politics will be published in June by Johns Hopkins University Press.