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Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes 25th anniversary Edition
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"An excellent book... Just as fresh and thought-provoking in 2008 as it was in 1983."(Laelaps)
"Even more enlightening than Machiavelli's The Prince, this book describes power takeovers and social organizations in a chimpanzee colony... I'll never look at academic or corporate politics the same way."(Jim Collins Inc.)
"Newt Gingrich has been an avid follower of de Waal's work for years. He has even placed de Waal's Chimpanzee Politics on his recommended reading list, along with better known texts such as the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Federalist Papers. What secrets has Gingrich gleaned from our simian cousins? In short, how to win power by forming tactical coalitions and mounting fierce psychological attacks on those blocking the way... It's a strategy Gingrich aped in his assault on former Speaker Jim Wright."(Business Week)
"Schmoozing. Scheming. Consensus building. You won't glean these management techniques from any business text. But you can't run your company without them. Take it from the apes... The author demonstrates that chimps are, in the broadest sense, political."(Business Month)
"The best book ever written on the social life of apes in captivity... The author has that special empathetic insight into the mind of the chimpanzee which is shared by few but can somehow be recognized by many."(Human Ethology Newsletter)
"Precise but eminently readable and indeed exciting... This excellent book achieves the dual goal which eludes so many writers about animal behavior―it will both fascinate the nonspecialist and be seen as an important contribution to science."(Times Literary Supplement)
"When I first read this book, I was in Dar es Salaam with Jane Goodall. I had just returned from observing chimpanzees for two weeks at Gombe. After the real-life experience, I expected a book about chimpanzee behavior―and at a zoo, at that―to make rather dull reading. But I was in for a surprise. De Waal's Chimpanzee Politics is as much fun as a tree full of wild chimps."(American Journal of Primatology)
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This book primarily tells the story of the struggles for power between three male chimpanzees at a zoo in Arnhem over a period of about three years during the late 1970s, although the interactions between the members of this core group and the other members of the community of chimpanzees in which they lived (which numbered approximately twenty-five) are also given a great amount of attention. This is because, as the author explains, power relationships within a chimpanzee community are complex. The starkest example of this complexity is a diagram titled ‘patterns of association’ (p. 68), which shows the relative proportion of time that each adult chimpanzee spent with other individuals in the group. This diagram will be instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with complex systems theory, even if only in a cursory way.
Underlying the story itself is its use by de Waal as a mechanism for examining social behaviours and needs in a more general sense. Although primarily a work of ethology, readers will also be able to see within this book echoes of the aforementioned systems theory as well as anthropology, psychology, historiography and, above all, political science. Perhaps it is a combination of the resulting versatility and the general accessibility of the prose that has made this book a “classic” worth reprinting a quarter of a century after its initial publication. Furthermore, as de Waal states in the preface (which was written for the 25th anniversary edition), he has deliberately avoided making comparisons between human society and behaviour on one hand, and those of the chimpanzees under observation on the other, beyond the use of terms such as ‘politics’, ‘coalition formation’ and ‘strategy’, which tend to have very human connotations for most readers. This dearth of inter-species comparison has served to both make the book a timeless one and, more importantly, to leave the ultimate act of comparative interpretation open to the reader.
In addition to a preface and epilogue added to this 25th anniversary edition, the book is structured in seven parts. The first is a lengthy introduction, which focuses on primate behaviour in general, including details of the meaning of chimpanzee body language and expressions. Five chapters then respectively introduce the individual chimpanzees; describe aspects of the power struggle between the three senior males; analyse the nuances of chimpanzee leadership in a social context; discuss the relationship between sexual privileges and the society’s power structure; and analyse the broader social mechanisms at play and their significance. Finally, a brief conclusion summarises the core behavioural patterns the chimpanzees displayed. That these behaviours could be considered ‘political’ is unquestionable (de Waal uses Laswell’s definition of politics as ‘who gets what, when and how’ (p. 1)); the process of alliance formation, breaking and re-formation that the apes undertook will be familiar to anyone who has studied human politics.
Although the Machiavellian nature of the behaviour of adult male chimpanzees under observation has often been highlighted, and is certainly evident, for me two other aspects of the discussion were much more interesting. The first of these was that the alpha male relied on the consent of all other members of the community, not just the other males, for his legitimacy. The second is that this legitimacy was related to redistributive (primarily regarding food) and arbitrative (between subordinate chimpanzees) functions performed by the alpha male. The better the alpha male was at these functions, the more consent he received from the group. As de Waal demonstrates, straightforward comparisons of outright physical strength matter less in determining the success of an alpha male than both coalition forming between males and legitimacy in the eyes of the community as a whole. In the power struggles that de Waal chronicles every chimpanzee’s attitudes and behaviours mattered, it was only the relative extent to which they did that differed. This reliance of the powerful upon the consent of their subordinates is a point that many commentators seem to have missed.
Where the analysis in this book wears thin is regarding the motives underlying why each of the three males involved in the power struggles chronicled sought power in the first place. De Waal offers biological imperatives as the core explanation underlying the drive for power, showing that the alpha male tends to mate more often and therefore has a greater chance of fathering offspring. This biological imperative, he notes, is likely to be unconscious. Chimpanzee males are therefore motivated instead by “subgoals” such as an innate desire for high rank and to maximise one’s own rate of copulation (pp. 162-8). This conclusion is tentative at best because it is a deduction based on de Waal’s observations of chimpanzee behaviour. Without being able to “get inside the chimpanzee’s head”, however, there is little more than this that de Waal could have done. As things stand, therefore, his conclusion is tentative but it is nevertheless the “best fit” for the evidence at hand.
This is a compelling book that has not lost any of its relevance over time. On one hand it is a good introduction to ethology for people unfamiliar with this topic. On the other hand, it will also be useful to readers across a variety of other disciplines, who will benefit from the indirect insights this book offers into the more primal urges and needs of our own species.
One of the key themes in the book is that so called political behavior is rooted at a level of development that is below cognitive and is as much instinctive as it is learned. Learning about the male chimpanzee's quest for dominance, it makes one wonder how much our behavior is motivated by inherent drives that are not only irrelevant in modern cultures, but are unknowable by those who experience the motivation.
This book has changed the way I look at and understand the word around me.
I strongly recommend this book, but it is not for the faint-hearted.