Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes
© 1983 Frans de Waal
Back in the 1970s, primatologist Frans de Waal conducted one of the first extensive studies into the social structures of chimpanzees. Chimpanzee Politics is the result, establishing facts now taken for granted, namely that chimpanzee populations are organized by rank, which for males influences how successful they are are spreading their genes. It also illustrates their startling intelligence, both social and physical; de Waal witnessed chimpanzees collaborating to overcome obstacles, like electrified wire wrapped around the base of a tree that could provide a bounty of food in leaves, as well as engaging in Machiavelli-level manipulation to increase their status within the community. Admittedly, some of this is subjective, but only some, and de Waal’s ideas were confirmed by other researchers’ observations of different populations, like Jane Goodall’s Gombe Valley project. Chimpanzee Politics makes for fascinating reading if you’ve an interest in our fellow primates: de Waal’s work indicates that leadership, even in a sheltered environment like the zoo enclosure in Arnhem where he did his work — comes with responsibilities, like keeping order. Alpha males haven’t simply brute-forced their way into the top of the sexing order; they’re seemingly expected to protect the weak against the strong and settle disputes. de Waal also points out that leadership in a chimpanzee tribe isn’t limited to brute force: he demonstrates how an older, deposed chimpanzee was able to maintain a position of immense influence by continuing playing two young contenders for the seat of power off of one another. It’s rather like a game of Survivor, with less whining and more fur — and instead of being voted off, you get beaten senseless. de Waal’s study did have its limitations: the chimpanzees did not interact with other tribes, nor did they compete for food, so important aspects of the equation are missing. He did compare his experiences with those of Goodall’s, however, and his general conclusions aren’t at odds with those she reached in Through a Mirror.