November 27, 2003
Chimpanzees Provide Insights Into Human Behavior

Nicholas Wade of the New York Times has written an excellent article reviewing what is known about chimpanzee behavior and differences and similarities with human behavior. For instance, chimps are very territorial and patrol borders in order to maintain large territorial areas for gathering fruit.

In two known cases, a chimp community has wiped out all of a neighbor's males. Though the females may be absorbed into the victors' community, the basic goal seems to be getting rid of a rival rather than capturing females, since male chimps often attack strange females.

Within a community, there is a male hierarchy that is subject to what primatologists euphemistically call elections. Alpha males can lose elections when other males form alliances against them. Losing an election is a bad idea. The deposed male sometimes ends up with personal pieces torn off him and is left to die of his wounds.

But the bonobos may hold more appeal for the most militant feminists.

An intriguing variation on the chimpanzee social system is that of bonobos, which split from chimps some 1.8 million years ago. With bonobos, who live in Congo south of the Congo River, the female hierarchy is dominant to that of males, and males do not patrol the borders to kill neighbors. Though bonobos are almost as aggressive as chimps, they have developed a potent reconciliation technique the use of sex on any and all occasions, between all ages and sexes, to abate tension and make nice.

Anyone else flash on the 1960s hippie slogan "Make love, not war"?

Stand back far enough and forget for a moment that humans are so much smarter and capable of developing very complex technologies and of discovering scientific laws. Just look at human social forms. They seem similar to those of other primates. At the same time it seems conceivable that a different sentient species could naturally favor very different structures of relationships than what humans form. It seems likely that a substantial portion of how humans organize into groups has a genetic basis.

When it becomes possible to genetically engineer human personality characteristics and behavioral tendencies different groups of humans may choose to engineer their children to be as different from each other in social behevior as are bonobos and chimpanzees. Such engineered splits in the human race may lead to wars between groups. Disagreements about values that are genetically engineered to be radically different will not be easily resolved by negotiation.

Wade's mention of elections to throw out an alpha male reminds me of Paul H. Rubin's argument that reverse dominance hierarchies from the Pleistocene era serve as the impetus for creating democracy. It could well be that the characteristic that has led to the drive for democracy can be traced all the way back to before humans and chimpanzees split off from each other about one and a half million years ago. See the post: Human Desire For Freedom Evolved Before We Lived In Cities

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 November 27 12:34 AM  Trends, Human Evolution

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