Feb 27 2009

Politics: The Muscle of the Smart Ape

Published by at 9:11 am under primate studies,psychology

In a sense, chimpanzees and other primates are political animals. What do I mean by that? They engage in behaviors such as alliance formation and favor exchange in order to improve their access to resources.

The study report, Small Male Chimps Use Politics, Rather Than Aggression, To Lead The Pack, begins this way -

With most mammals, the biggest and most aggressive male claims the alpha male role and gets his choice of food and females. But a new study from the University of Minnesota suggests that at least among chimpanzees, smaller, more mild-mannered males can also use political behavior to secure the top position.

There is strength in numbers, and in some social groups described as egalitarian — in which attempts at despotic rule by one is prevented by the vigilant, unified discouragement many — the strategy of gaining power by making friends is likely more effective.

While the quantity of the data for the study was poor, little more than anecdote, really, these initial findings are intriguing. In detail -

The study focused on three alpha males who reigned between 1989 and 2003. Frodo, one of the largest and most aggressive male chimpanzees ever observed at Gombe, weighed 51.2 kg (112.6 lbs.) at his peak. He relied on his size and aggression to rule. While he allowed other chimpanzees to groom him, he seldom returned the favor. At the other end of the spectrum, Wilkie, who weighed only 37 kg (81.4 lbs.), obsessively groomed both male and female chimpanzees to maintain his top position. And Freud, who weighed 44.8 kg (98.6 lbs.), used a combination of the two strategies. (The average male chimp in Gombe weighs about 39 kg (85.8 lbs.).

I find primatology fascinating. Studies such as these may help us understand our own behavior. I look forward to more research.

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