The Politics of Chimpanzee Societies

Book Review: The New Chimpanzee by Craig Stanford. Harvard University Press. 2018.

In his 1982 book Chimpanzee Politics, primatologist Frans de Waal made the then-provocative argument that much of human’s political behavior stems from the evolutionary heritage we share with chimpanzees. Describing the similarities humans have in common with chimps in domains such as coalition building, status competition, and sex differences, de Waal concluded that, “What my work [studying chimpanzees] has taught me…is that the roots of politics are older than humanity.”

In The New Chimpanzee (2018), anthropologist Craig Stanford offers a worthy successor to de Waal’s classic, integrating the latest research to expound not just on the many similarities we share with our relatives of the forest, but their own unique traits and behaviors as well. While Stanford does an admirable job of conveying just how fascinating and distinct chimpanzees are in their own right, it is nonetheless striking how humanlike many of their behaviors seem to be.

Following de Waal, Stanford gives particular attention to chimpanzee status competition and ‘political’ behavior. Stanford notes that male chimpanzees that are higher ranked in dominance hierarchies have better reproductive success (more children) and live longer than lower ranked males, and he connects this to research in humans showing that higher status males also tend to be healthier and have greater reproductive success. Stanford suggests that “there might be an ancient origin for the relationship between human life expectancy and social status.” This may be due to direct effects, such as access to better nutrition, or “it could also be due to indirect effects: being high ranking may carry psychological perks that promote long, healthy lives,” Stanford writes.

Some of the similarities Stanford describes when it comes to political behavior end up being quite humorous. Stanford tells the story of the alpha chimpanzee, Ntologi, who lived at Mahale National Park in Tanzania. Stanford writes that Ntologi, “shared meat liberally as he rose in rank.” However, once he achieved alpha status, Ntologi’s “generosity dropped, and he began sharing meat mainly with those whose political support he still needed most.” This behavior so closely mirrors that of many of our own politicians it feels almost cliché. Political leaders supplying resources or favors to allies to maintain their support is well documented in social science research. In their 2003 book The Logic of Political Survival, political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and his colleagues write that “The survival of leaders and of the institutions or regimes they lead is threatened when they are no longer able to provide sufficient resources to sustain political support.”

As with humans, no single chimpanzee can maintain power on their own. Stanford writes that, “In my own field studies, there was always a single alpha male, but his power at a given moment was highly dependent on those around him.” For humans, the authors of The Logic of Political Survival write, “Make no mistake about it, no leader rules alone. Even the most oppressive dictators cannot survive the loss of support among their core constituents.” It’s difficult not to be impressed with how strategic, and even rational, chimpanzee political behavior and status competition is.

Similarly, we see strategic elements in chimpanzee hunting behavior. Chimpanzee males at many sites engage in cooperative hunts, seeking out prey such as red colobus monkeys. At the site of Ngogo at Kibale National Park in Uganda, Stanford writes that, “Male bonding and male efforts to rise in rank by currying favor with the right higher-up were major motivating forces in obtaining meat in the first place.” More than simply seeking out subsistence, hunting for male chimpanzees is often part of building alliances and jockeying for political power.

There is a risk when studying chimpanzees in ascribing uniquely human characteristics and behaviors onto them. Yet learning about chimpanzees can lead us to greater insight in understanding our own behaviors and evolutionary history. Sensitive to these issues, de Waal writes that, it would not “be correct to accuse me of having, either consciously or unconsciously, projected human patterns onto chimpanzee behavior. The reverse is nearer the truth; my knowledge edge and experience of chimpanzee behavior have led me to look at humans in another light.” While Stanford gives appropriate emphasis to our similarities with chimps, he also gives due attention to how intriguing chimpanzees are in their own right, writing that he hopes “readers will appreciate chimpanzees for what they are— not underevolved humans or caricatures of ourselves, but perhaps the most interesting of all the species of nonhuman animals with which we share our planet.”

Stanford concludes by noting that chimpanzees act “as ambassadors between our own evolutionary history as apes and our present selves, the technologically advanced humans of this century who grow more divorced from our heritage with each passing generation.” Chimpanzees are an impressive species: fundamentally unique, while also offering us an avenue to better understand ourselves and our own history. For those interested in learning about chimpanzees and their relationship to humans, Stanford’s work is bound to satisfy.

Editor’s note: This article was first published in French at Phébé par Le Point.